Their existence threatened, monarch butterflies didn't receive the protection hoped for under the Endangered Species List in an announcement last week. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said Dec. 15 that while a listing was warranted, there were "higher priority" species in need.
While the news no doubt disappointed many supporters of monarchs, a report from Austin, Minn., was a reminder of a truth: The regal beauties are resilient like few other things in the wild.
On Aug. 26, a local boy placed a small, adhesive tag on a monarch — a tracker of sorts — during a program at Jay C. Hormel Center and sent it on its way. Eighty-seven days and more than 2,000 miles later, the tag was recovered in the butterflies' winter grounds in central Mexico. The monarch had landed.
It's not the first time evidence of a butterfly in Minnesota has materialized south of the border. But the discovery still stands as a minor miracle given what the pollinators are up against.
Already a species whose habitat of native flowering plants is under threat, they migrate south by the millions every fall from the United States and Canada. There are risks of harsh weather and predators, too. It's estimated only 30% to 70% survive the long miles south.
The Minnesota-to-Mexico connection started when Hunter Peters, 11, placed tag "ABUL 048" on a male's wing, one of more than 50 monarchs tagged that day at the center, said director Luke Reese. They were among more than 400 captured, tagged and released there in August and September. The tags came from Monarch Watch, a conservation organization that distributes more than a quarter of a million every fall and tracks their recovery.
Word came of ABUL 048 on Nov. 22 via Facebook. Ellen Sharp, the co-founder of Butterflies & Their People, reported that one of her nonprofit's "forest guardians," Francisco Moreno Hernandez, had found the tag on a leaf Nov. 21, no butterfly in sight. Sharp reached out to Monarch Watch, which tracked ABUL 048 to its Minnesota origins.
ABUL 048 was the first tag of the season found in the 8,000-acre Cerro Pelon sanctuary, said Sharp, whose conservation work is anchored there. Remote and rugged amid fir, cedar and pine, Cerro Pelon is one of several butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán and Mexico, two bordering states where the butterflies colonize. She employs six forest guardians who live in the area, in her mission to support them and the marvels in the air. Monarch Watch provides incentive, too, paying $5 for every recovered tag, money that stretches far in the region. Monarch Watch has reported 323 tags recovered so far in 2020.
Sharp also co-owns JM Butterfly B&B, an eco-tourism business at the Macheros entrance to the sanctuary. The pandemic has closed Cerro Pelon to visitors, an economic hit for the communities that rely on tourists to pour in between November and March to see the monarch colonies, Sharp said. The B&B will host upward of 800 people in a typical season, and offer day trips to hundreds more. Sharp said the El Rosario and Sierra Chincua sanctuaries in Michoacan reopened Nov. 28. El Rosario has reported as many as 8,000 visitors in a weekend in previous years.
Amid the challenges, Sharp said news of ABUL 048 has been a welcome lift.
"It was nice to have something to make us feel tied in again," Sharp said. That the tag was found without its butterfly was different, too, she added. Many times they're recovered on dead monarchs on the ground. But not in this instance.
"It also is encouraging, too, this butterfly could live to mate and migrate to Texas. Who knows?" she said, referring to butterflies' migration back in late February.
A remarkable parallel
Karen Oberhauser is a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She's also a monarch expert who spent many years at the University of Minnesota researching them.
Oberhauser recalled the case of another Minnesota monarch, whose tag — "ps 397" — was spotted in January 1975 in the Cerro Pelon sanctuary just as the great migration was coming to light. The monarch was tagged in Minnesota by a North Hopkins Junior High student of naturalist Jim Gilbert, a teacher at the time. (Gilbert is a weekly contributor to Outdoors Weekend.)
Gilbert had received the tags from an associate, Fred Urquhart, a leading entomologist studying the monarch migration. Coincidentally, it was Urquhart who picked up the tag in Cerro Pelon's mountains while he was with a National Geographic photographer. A tree branch weighed heavy with butterflies broke, sending thousands to the ground. Urquhart sat among them.
"I reached into a pile of butterflies and was amazed when I picked up the tagged specimen, which, of course, the photographer snapped immediately. The butterfly was in excellent condition," Urquhart told Gilbert in a letter.
The butterfly was the first tagged monarch found in Mexico — a discovery that brought new focus to the improbable migration.
"It's just such a wonderful connection to that very first tag," Oberhauser said. "The parallels are pretty cool."
Oberhauser recalled a trip to Mexico after years of studying breeding monarchs in the Midwest. Finally visiting their winter home was validating, she said.
"What I just remember thinking when I looked at those millions of butterflies in the trees is that every single one of those monarchs is an amazing story of survival because I knew how few of them survived being eggs and caterpillars. It's like two of out of a hundred. … Each one of them is a miracle."
Hunter, the young tagger, might believe in miracles now. He said he had so much fun tagging monarchs earlier that he returned Aug. 26, with his grandmother Verna Heuertz. He said he tagged multiple ones that day, ABUL 048 among them, while his grandmother recorded data.
He was happy to hear that his butterfly had survived the trip. "I was very excited when I first found it. I knew they went. I didn't know that they went that far in that amount of time," Hunter said.
Reese said tags placed at the center have surfaced before in Mexico, but this year's news was extra rewarding.
"In 2020, when things are so negative, knowing about this put a smile on my face," he said.
Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899