21 Dec 2015: Report

To Protect Monarch Butterfly,
A Plan to Save the Sacred Firs

Mexican scientists are striving to plant oyamel fir trees at higher altitudes in an effort to save the species, as well as its fluttering iconic winter visitor — the migrating monarch butterfly — from the devastating effects of climate change.

by janet marinelli

For as long as anyone can remember, monarch butterflies have arrived in Mexico's Trans-Volcanic Belt in late October, when the locals begin to celebrate Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families fill their homes with marigolds, eat skull-shaped sweets and place candles on graves to guide the souls of departed loved ones home. According to

Carlos Gottfried/UNESCO
Oyamel forests provide migrating monarch butterflies with an ideal microclimate for their winter survival.
traditional belief, the brilliant orange butterflies are the spirits of ancestors returning to earth to visit.

Steep, fir-clad peaks are scattered across the volcanic arc from Jalisco east to Veracruz, but most of the butterflies spend the winter on just a few of them, in an area protected as the Monarch Biosphere Reserve. In the cool, thin air between 9,500 and 10,800 feet they huddle together by the thousands on oyamel fir trees (Abies religiosa), commonly called the “sacred fir” because of its narrow, conic tip that resembles clasped hands with fingers pointed upwards, praying. These dense, dark-green conifers protect the monarchs from cold and rainy winter nights.

A billion butterflies once fluttered down from as far as southern Canada to paint the firs a quivering crazy quilt of orange and black with white spots. But due to the usual litany of destructive factors — from the deforestation of Mexico’s oyamel fir trees to the loss of milkweeds, the primary host plants for monarch caterpillars up north — their numbers have plummeted. By 2014, there were just 33 million of them. Although they have ticked up slightly since, their numbers remain perilously low. And now an additional threat — the devastating impact of climate change on the butterfly’s wintering sites in Mexico — is fast becoming clear. In addition to deforestation, the oyamel is suffering from progressively hotter, drier conditions. If the damage continues and the trees can no longer provide a refuge, the iconic migratory butterflies will face yet another challenge.
Scientists are in a race to save these firs and the butterflies that depend on them.

While U.S. biologists urge gardeners to plant milkweeds to help restore the monarchs’ summer habitat, Mexican scientists are pinning their hopes on a plan to move the species progressively higher up local mountainsides in a race to save these firs and the butterflies that depend on them. “We have to act now,” says the plan’s architect, Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a forest geneticist at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. “Later will be too late, because the trees will be dead or too weak to produce seeds in enough quantity for large reforestation programs.”

When the rainy season arrived last summer, a few hundred seedlings were planted at 11,286 feet, where habitat suited to oyamel fir trees is expected to be by 2030. By then, according to retired U.S. Forest Service geneticist Jerry Rehfeldt, who co-authored a paper with Sáenz-Romero on global warming’s effect on oyamels, temperatures in the reserve could rise above pre-industrial levels by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030, and suitable habitat could shrink by nearly 70 percent. The scientists’ research further suggests that by the end of the century, habitat that meets the fir’s needs

Lincoln Brower/Sweet Briar College
Millions of monarch butterflies journey to Mexico’s endangered oyamel trees every winter.
may no longer exist anywhere inside the reserve. Trees would have to be planted at higher altitudes on peaks more than 100 miles away from the monarch’s migratory home.

The sacred fir is a poster child for the plight of trees around the globe. Trees provide habitat for countless species and underpin ecosystems as well as human economies, but as a group they are highly imperiled. A diagram in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Working Group II report shows that of all life forms, trees are least able to respond to rapid climate change. Rooted in place, they have not evolved for rapid locomotion. Many take decades to mature and reproduce.

The breakneck speed of current global warming dwarfs anything in the fossil record, even what Lee Kump, professor of geosciences at Penn State University, has called “the last great global warming” 56 million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. At that time, over the course of a few thousand years, global temperatures soared 9°F as the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart. By comparison, if carbon emissions are not slashed soon, scientists warn it’s possible we could witness that much warming in a matter of centuries, if not decades. Without human help, trees and many other plant and animal species most likely won’t be able to migrate fast enough to keep pace with rapidly changing conditions.

There is a combination of challenges that scientists use to identify flora and fauna most imperiled by climate change — and the oyamel meets most of
The fir tree is running out of options as temperatures spike even higher today.
them. Already forced to retreat to higher altitudes when the world warmed after the last Ice Age, it’s running out of options as temperatures spike even higher today. Once more widespread, the oyamel fir trees are now fragmented into small, widely scattered populations that lack resilience and run a high risk of extirpation from random events. The extraordinary measures being taken on the tree’s behalf are a textbook case of how efforts to save species threatened by climate upheaval are fraught with complexity.

For the past several years, Sáenz-Romero and his colleagues have painstakingly prepared to move the oyamel to more suitable climes. Early studies determined that trees growing at a particular altitude are genetically different from populations at other elevations. Seed was collected along an altitudinal gradient to capture this genetic diversity, and then germinated. The planting this past summer was designed to test which of 10 genetically distinct populations — a shift upwards of almost 1,500 feet in altitude for some of the seedlings — would fare best.

Because conditions projected for 2030 do not yet exist in places where the seedlings were nestled into the mountainside, they face the risk of frost damage from the current climate. And since global warming is promoting more extreme weather of all sorts, from heat waves and droughts to downpours and cold snaps, they’re also likely to be confronted by climates with no contemporary analog. “Today’s trees are not adapted to this,” says Sáenz-Romero. “Even if we move the populations to the correct spot, there will be large casualties.” To further complicate matters, at about 13,000 feet, above the tree line, the soil is very poor. If it becomes necessary to move the trees that high, organic soil would need to be carted up the steep slopes to the planting sites.

Unlike this summer’s small assisted migration trial, a massive reforestation effort will be required before too long. Sáenz-Romero expects this to be undertaken by local communities that survive on monarch-based ecotourism, with the aide of governments and private groups abroad. However, the hardest part, he contends, will be convincing ecologists and
Until recently, most ecologists considered assisted migration a somewhat radical, if not impractical, concept.
conservationists in time that assisted migration is essential.

Assisted migration, also called “managed relocation,” has sparked one of the biggest controversies in contemporary conservation science. Until recently, most ecologists considered it a somewhat radical, if not impractical, concept. Some still oppose introducing a species to a new environment, considering it a risky endeavor given that invasive nonnative plants, animals and pathogens can pose a grave threat to natural areas. As University of Minnesota biologist Jessica Hellmann, one of the leading researchers on global change ecology, points out, “do no harm” is the profession’s guiding principle. Still, “attitudes have changed a lot,” she says. Just five years ago, many of her colleagues questioned whether assisted migration was even an area of legitimate research. Now, she says, “dozens and dozens of papers are being published in serious journals.”

Forest geneticists point to iconic tree species already being clobbered by climate disruption, including rare and genetically unique evolutionary relicts such as the giant sequoias. They also worry about potentially catastrophic declines in the productivity of widely dispersed stalwarts of the timber industry like ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Land managers “need guidelines now,” says Rehfeldt, the retired USFS geneticist.

ALSO FROM YALE e360

Climate Relicts: Seeking Clues
On How Some Species Survive

In pockets ranging from mountain peaks to bogs, scientists are discovering plants and animals that survived previous eras of climate change. Now, conservation biologists say, these climate “relicts” could shed light on how some species may hang on in the coming centuries. Carl Zimmer reports.
READ MORE
“As an ecologist, I’m nervous about assisted migration of the sacred fir,” says leading monarch biologist Karen Oberhauser, head of University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab and co-chair of Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership working to protect the butterfly’s migration. “But it’s an important part of our toolkit when a species is faced with the total loss of its habitat.”

For full-scale assisted migration to become a reality, more ecologists and conservationists will need to actively support it, forest geneticists say. A large reforestation program for the oyamel or any other tree would be expensive, notes Rehfeldt, and unlikely to be funded if there is even a whiff of controversy.

Meanwhile, the race against time continues to prepare the sacred fir for whatever the future holds, lest it and countless other plants and animals become departed spirits remembered each year, like human loved ones, on the Day of the Dead.



POSTED ON 21 Dec 2015 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Oceans Science & Technology Science & Technology Sustainability Europe North America 

COMMENTS


Janet,

Superb article that begins with a climate-biodiversity concern (one butterfly and its tree partner) and then spans into a truly terrifying prospect — well beyond the usual scope of conservation issues.

That even the forest dominants (Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir) in western North America will soon need assistance in moving north is a shock to our conventional views of how we do conservation.

Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service already has posted online maps of projected geographic range shifts for 210 species of native trees, available here:

76 species of western USA trees: http://forest.moscowfsl.wsu.edu/climate/species/

134 species of eastern USA trees:http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/atlas/tree/tree_atlas.htm
l#

Posted by Connie Barlow on 23 Dec 2015


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


janet marinelliABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janet Marinelli is an award-winning independent journalist who was director of scientific and popular publications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 16 years. She has written and edited several books on imperiled species and the efforts to save them. She also covers ecological approaches to creating resilient landscapes and communities. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, from The New York Times and Audubon to Landscape Architecture and Kew magazine.

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


An Unusually Warm Arctic Year:
Sign of Future Climate Turmoil?

This year will almost certainly go down as the warmest on record in the Arctic, with autumn temperatures soaring 36 degrees F above normal. In a Yale e360 interview, climatologist Jennifer Francis explains why a swiftly warming Arctic may have profound effects on global weather.
READ MORE

How Warming Threatens the Genetic
Diversity of Species, and Why It Matters

Research on stoneflies in Glacier National Park indicates that global warming is reducing the genetic diversity of some species, compromising their ability to evolve as conditions change. These findings have major implications for how biodiversity will be affected by climate change.
READ MORE

Are Trees Sentient Beings?
Certainly, Says German Forester

In his bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben argues that to save the world’s forests we must first recognize that trees are “wonderful beings” with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees.
READ MORE

At Standing Rock, A Battle
Over Fossil Fuels and Land

The Native American-led protest against the Dakota Access pipeline has gained global attention. In an e360 interview, indigenous expert Kyle Powys Whyte talks about the history of fossil fuel production on tribal lands and the role native groups are playing in fighting climate change.
READ MORE

How Forensics Are Boosting
Battle Against Wildlife Trade

From rapid genetic analysis to spectrography, high-tech tools are being used to track down and prosecute perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade. The new advances in forensics offer promise in stopping the trafficking in endangered species.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


How Warming Threatens the Genetic
Diversity of Species, and Why It Matters

by jim robbins
Research on stoneflies in Glacier National Park indicates that global warming is reducing the genetic diversity of some species, compromising their ability to evolve as conditions change. These findings have major implications for how biodiversity will be affected by climate change.
READ MORE

Full Speed Ahead: Shipping
Plans Grow as Arctic Ice Fades

by ed struzik
Russia, China, and other nations are stepping up preparations for the day when large numbers of cargo ships will be traversing a once-icebound Arctic Ocean. But with vessels already plying these waters, experts say the time is now to prepare for the inevitable environmental fallout.
READ MORE

How Forensics Are Boosting
Battle Against Wildlife Trade

by heather millar
From rapid genetic analysis to spectrography, high-tech tools are being used to track down and prosecute perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade. The new advances in forensics offer promise in stopping the trafficking in endangered species.
READ MORE

African Wetlands Project: A Win
For the Climate and the People?

by winifred bird
In Senegal and other developing countries, multinational companies are investing in programs to restore mangrove forests and other wetlands that sequester carbon. But critics say these initiatives should not focus on global climate goals at the expense of the local people’s livelihoods.
READ MORE

Ghost Forests: How Rising Seas
Are Killing Southern Woodlands

by roger real drouin
A steady increase in sea levels is pushing saltwater into U.S. wetlands, killing trees from Florida as far north as New Jersey. But with sea level projected to rise by as much as six feet this century, the destruction of coastal forests is expected to become a worsening problem worldwide.
READ MORE

On College Campuses, Signs of
Progress on Renewable Energy

by ben goldfarb
U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly deploying solar arrays and other forms of renewable energy. Yet most institutions have a long way to go if they are to meet their goal of being carbon neutral in the coming decades.
READ MORE

For European Wind Industry,
Offshore Projects Are Booming

by christian schwägerl
As Europe’s wind energy production rises dramatically, offshore turbines are proliferating from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. It’s all part of the European Union’s strong push away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.
READ MORE

In New Ozone Alert, A Warning
Of Harm to Plants and to People

by jim robbins
Scientists are still trying to unravel the damaging effects of ground-level ozone on life on earth. But as the world warms, their concerns about the impact of this highly toxic, pollution-caused gas are growing.
READ MORE

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

by mike ives
To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.
READ MORE

Natural Aquaculture: Can We
Save Oceans by Farming Them?

by richard schiffman
A small but growing number of entrepreneurs are creating sea-farming operations that cultivate shellfish together with kelp and seaweed, a combination they contend can restore ecosystems and mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ashaninka
An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale