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During the last two weeks of October, thousands of black-and-orange Monarch butterflies are expected to fly through San Antonio as they make their way to Mexico to roost for the winter.
This year’s migration season comes amid changes in the political landscape that could have serious consequences for Monarchs and other pollinators. Proposed budget cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency, the possible dissolution of the Clean Power Plan, and construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border all could affect the future health of the species. In addition, among other challenges, symptoms of climate change abound.
In July, staff at the National Butterfly Center in South Texas discovered workers with chainsaws on the 100-acre private sanctuary who were clearing the way for President Donald Trump’s border wall. Earlier this week, the center sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and stated it would sue the government, alleging that agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act by ignoring the environmental consequences of building the wall. The sanctuary provides habitat for a myriad of endangered species, including the Monarch butterfly.
Currently, there is a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act due to a sharp population drop in recent years that could bring risk of extinction, according to scientists. In the last 35 years, the population of western Monarchs has plummeted from about 10 million to 300,000, according to recent studies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until June 2019 to rule on the listing.
These political and atmospheric changes will all take center stage during the second annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival Oct. 20-22. This year, the festival will span three days. Last year, an estimated 7,000 people attended the event.
The three-day festival is organized by the Texas Butterfly Ranch through partnerships with nonprofits and private and public entities. The event aims to increase awareness of insect pollinators and their role in the food chain, encourage the use of native nectar and host plants for pollinators, underscore the United State’s connection with Mexico and Canada, and highlight San Antonio as the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City.
“Monarch butterflies and their migration are a powerful symbol of the bonds we all share,” said Monika Maeckle, director of the festival and of the Texas Butterfly Ranch. To Maeckle, the butterflies are more than a beautiful species; they are “a prism through which to see complex issues like immigration, borders, sustainability and climate change.”
Fittingly, Maeckle chose a theme based on that complexity: “Butterflies without Borders.”
Friday, Oct. 20
Butterflies Without Borders Symposium: The Monarch Migration in Our Changing Climate | Pearl Stable, 6-8 p.m. (Ticketed)
To kick off the festival, a panel of scientists and citizen scientists from Mexico, the U.S., and Canada will participate in a symposium exploring the consequences and intersections of politics and pollinators. The panel will be moderated by Dan Goodgame, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author who is a vice president at Rackspace.
The panelists are Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, the director of scientific communication at the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico (CONABIO); Louise Hénault-Ethier, director of science at the David Suzuki Foundation; Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, an organization that tracks and advocates for wildlife migrations; and Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor. Taylor’s citizen science initiative tags and tracks Monarch butterflies.
Taylor told the Rivard Report that the dynamics of Monarch migration and the status of migration numbers this year will be important topics in the discussion, but it’s important to think about the long-term fate of the butterflies.
“Will we sustain this population into the future and can we provide enough habitat to replace habitat that has been lost due to intensification of agriculture in the upper Midwest?” Taylor said. “We’re taking their habitat away, and if we want to sustain the population we have to restore a lot of habitat. We have to deal with the long-term picture as well, which has to do with climate change and deals with our own future.
“If we don’t do something to reduce the increase in CO2 production, there will be massive heating across the continent.”
Hénault-Ethier told the Rivard Report that one challenge is continuing the proliferation of milkweed, which attracts Monarch butterflies.
“One of the great worries I have is the potential link between glyphosate-based herbicides and milkweed,” she said.
Studies of these herbicides have been done in the U.S., she said, but not in Canada. “It’s a very difficult issue to solve,” she said, “because it involves three different countries that have different visions and that can change on a very short-term notice.”
Saturday, Oct. 21
Butterflies in the Classroom: Teacher Workshop | San Antonio River Authority, 9 a.m.-12 p.m. (Free to teachers)
Elizabeth Howard, the founder of Journey North, will host a teacher workshop about how to use Monarchs in the classroom.
Butterfly Walk and Talk | San Antonio Botanical Garden, 10:30-12 p.m. (Free with admission)
Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, who also is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, will give a butterfly walk and talk in the garden. Chefs’ demonstrations, children’s activities and fitness programs also will take place. That evening, guests can attend the Moonlight in the Garden of Good and Evil afterparty, which will include performances, games, a costume contest, and music. Food trucks will be on site and a cash bar will be available to guests 21 and older.
Bug Lunch | Witte Museum (Free with admission)
Louise Hénault-Ethier, director of Science at the David Suzuki Foundation, will host a workshop at the Witte that explores entomophagy, the eating of insects as food by human beings. Participants will be able to taste bug-based food and learn how to construct an insect farm.
Tree of Life Workshop for Children with artist Luis Moro | Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair, 2-5 p.m. (Free)
Mexico City-based artist Luis Moro will build a Tree of Life out of monarch butterflies at Yanaguana Garden, where children ages 4-12 will be able to participate. To learn more, click here.
Monarcas, Atravesando Fronteras / Monarchs Crossing Borders | Mexican Cultural Institute, 6 p.m. (Free)
The Mexican Cultural Institute will host a special reception for Moro as he presents his artwork. After the reception, Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, director of scientific communication at the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico, will headline a talk at 6 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 22
Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival | The Pearl, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Free)
The festival at the pearl includes a People for Pollinators parade, Pedaling Pollinators Butterfly Bikes, kid-friendly Monarch butterfly tagging demos, educational activities, San Antonio Water System Monarch and pollinator garden seminars, and more. Costumes are encouraged. The butterfly release will take place at noon at the amphitheater.
“We’re thrilled to participate in the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival and offer our space for programs and panels,” stated Pearl Chief Marketing Officer Elizabeth Fauerso. “The Pearl happens to be a one of many pit stops for Monarch butterflies on their migration path, and our visitors often enjoy seeing them on site.”
To learn more about the festival, visit the Texas Butterfly Ranch website.