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.


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.
“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 



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

Posted by Connie Barlow on 23 Dec 2015


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.

Email address 
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.



High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.

How Climate Change Could Jam
The World's Ocean Circulation

Scientists are closely monitoring a key current in the North Atlantic to see if rising sea temperatures and increased freshwater from melting ice are altering the “ocean conveyor belt” — a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.

Exploring How and Why
Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other

Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate their needs and aid neighboring plants. Now she’s warning that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical networks.

Wildlife Farming: Does It Help
Or Hurt Threatened Species?

Wildlife farming is being touted as a way to protect endangered species while providing food and boosting incomes in rural areas. But some conservation scientists argue that such practices fail to benefit beleaguered wildlife.


MORE IN Reports

High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

by nicola jones
Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

by mike ives
The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

by fred pearce
The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

by marc gunther
Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

The New Green Grid: Utilities
Deploy ‘Virtual Power Plants’

by maria gallucci
By linking together networks of energy-efficient buildings, solar installations, and batteries, a growing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are helping utilities reduce energy demand at peak hours and supply targeted areas with renewably generated electricity.

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive challenge: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

by jim robbins
Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by nicola jones
Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

by christian schwägerl
Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.

For India’s Captive Leopards,
A Life Sentence Behind Bars

by richard conniff
As sightings of leopards in populated areas increase, Indian authorities are trapping the animals and keeping them in captivity — often in small cages without adequate food or veterinary care. The real solution, wildlife advocates say, is to educate the public on how to coexist with the big cats.

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


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

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.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

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


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


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

Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
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

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.