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First person: Thinking globally, acting locally to save the monarch butterfly

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On today’s main show, we talked about the fragile beauty of the monarch butterfly. Last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature labeled the migratory monarch butterfly as endangered. We explored the butterflies’ spectacular fall migration, and the long-term habitat loss that threatens the monarchs. We started our journey in Mexico.

JOSE LUIS ALVAREZ: The monarchs are very mystical creatures, you know. They arrived here the Day of the Dead, which we celebrate here in Mexico. And a lot of the indigenous people believe that it’s the souls of their ancestors that are returning. And it’s very spiritual, basically. If you’ve been to the monarchs overwintering site, it’s a very special feeling to listen to the wings and to see the quantity of monarchs. And when they come off the clusters and they fly … it’s extremely beautiful.

CHAKRABARTI: Listening to the wings of a monarch butterfly. What a magical thought. Jose Luis Alvarez is co-founder of Forests for Monarchs, a butterfly protection project around the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico.

And when he talks about listening to monarch wings, Jose Luis means listening to this.

ALVAREZ: To the ear alone, it sounds like a light breeze or a gentle waterfall. But imagine yourself in a brilliant orange and yellow waterfall made up of millions of monarch butterflies swirling all around you.

These forests where they are overwintering are extremely beautiful forests. You can imagine these trees are up at 10,000, 12,000 feet. … The air is very thin, it’s chilly. And in the winter, it’s cold. And in the summer it’s very humid because it’s raining. So there’s a great smell to it. And there’s a variety of tree that they prefer, which is the Oyamel. And it’s kind of like United States fir trees. Very, very beautiful.

Then below that, you have the pines, and then after the pines you start getting some oaks and they’re very thick, old forests, very beautiful. It’s hard to describe. You’d have to come and see it. It’s incredible.

It’s millions of butterflies, and they’re migrating and they’re stopping in the same place on their way down. So, like, I’ll give you an example. There will be a school in Monterrey or in Matamoros. These are towns in Mexico, and outside of this school, there’ll be a very beautiful tree.

And each year, the monarchs will take the rest there. They’ll stop and rest overnight. And the children know that they’re going to go to that particular tree. And this is year after year, the same tree, although they’ve never been there before. The numbers are lower now. When I started planting there 23 or 24 years ago, it was a greater quantity. There was a terrible freeze in 2002.

I was actually photographed during that storm. And I’m standing in the butterflies and they go up to my knees, basically. One of the reasons that I’ve been doing this for 23 years is because there’s space for it to be done, because many of these mountains that had force many years ago, and I’m talking decades ago, or even more, were turned into agricultural fields. And the slopes on them are terrible. So the land is very eroded. And so I’ve changed a lot of agricultural sites or cultural fields back into forests.

I’ve been planting trees there and seeing them grow. You know, I have trees now that are 23 years old, so they’re huge trees. Trees grow much quicker here than they do in the United States, and Canada and Europe. So in 15 years, actually, you’ve got huge forest. We have climate change and, you know, the farmers are suffering from that. It rains less and there’s more heat.

So there’ll always be, you know, some problems with just climate change, and we have to try to do something about it. But in general, if you think about this, if the monarchs have been doing this since the last Ice Age and they’ve adapted themselves, the survival of their species depends on this migration.

So they’re extremely clever. This may be a bad time, or the numbers may be low. They may be now considered an endangered species. But they’re very hearty. They’re very strong. If you could call them intelligent, I would call them extremely intelligent. And if they’ve survived this long, I’m sure they will continue. I’m sure the numbers will go back up, if the forests are taken care of correctly and if there’s enough milkweed, I think it’ll be fine.

CHAKRABARTI: Jose Luis Alvarez, co-founder of Forests for Monarchs and owner and expert tree nurseryman of the Vivero Forestal nursery. So look, maybe you can’t reforest entire mountainsides like Jose Luis is doing, but large scale habitat restoration isn’t the only way to help monarch butterflies.

This is a classic think global, act local moment. Like, super duper local, like in your own yard local. Martha Askins is a retired lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin, and she’s been planting milkweed, a favorite plant for monarchs and other insect species in her home garden.

MARTHA ASKINS: Since I’ve been doing the Monarch Project, I have increased those plants that I know the monarchs require, and those are the milkweed. So now I have common milkweed, I have world milkweed, butterfly weed and swamp milkweed all in my garden right now.

And just before talking with you today, I was watching a monarch sort of go from plant to plant and look for a place to lay eggs, hopefully. So it’s really an interest in making my little corner of the world more hospitable to plants, birds, pollinators, what have you. At different times of the summer, the colors are different. In the spring, there’s lots of purple.

And then it goes more orange and yellow as the yellow flowers like coreopsis and the rudbeckia start to bloom. Right now, things are kind of at their peak, and so there’s lots of purple with the blazing star, and there’s purple, pale purple cone flower. There’s the kind of musty green of the common milkweed. There’s the bright orange and yellow of the butterfly weed.

Most of the year, I have my bird feeder up in the middle of that. And the goldfinches at this time of year really enjoy the garden. Because they come down and take seed out of the cone flowers. It’s great to see the goldfinches sort of perched on top of the plants, and they kind of sway in the wind. It’s great. Hummingbirds come by. So it always feels alive to me.

There’s a lot happening in a small area. And yeah, I love it. When looking at milkweed, for signs of monarch eggs or monarch larva, it’s a very meditative thing. To take a plant that has maybe ten leaves on it and look physically underneath each leaf.

And then look if I see a larva. It’s the happiness that comes out of that, is kind of surprising to me. That seeing this little bug or this little caterpillar is just like, yeah, I found one. And I hope that this caterpillar grows to be a monarch.

You know, the other things that I love about this garden, I think people appreciate it in the neighborhood sometimes. I have some chairs out, and I sit there and people say they appreciate it. I’ve had birdwatchers, and I’ll say how grateful they are for it. It’s really nice. And I just like how it changes. I like how it’s a little bit different every year. It’s a little bit different every season. And to get those just kind of little moments of joy out of it is important to me.

CHAKRABARTI: Martha Askins. She’s a retired lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin. Martha has planted several types of milkweed in her garden. But if you’re interested in helping save the monarch butterfly, there’s an even easier way to start. Just plant one.

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Monarch butterflies are pictured on December 10, 2008, at the Sierra del Chincua sancturay in Angangueo, in the Mexican state of Michoacan. (Mario Vazquez/AFP/Getty Images)
Monarch butterflies are pictured on December 10, 2008, at the Sierra del Chincua sancturay in Angangueo, in the Mexican state of Michoacan. (Mario Vazquez/AFP/Getty Images)