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Mexico funds will protect butterflies

President Felipe Calderon unveiled a sweeping plan Sunday to curb logging and protect millions of monarch butterflies that migrate to the mountains of central Mexico each winter.
Image: monarch butterflies
Two monarch butterflies sit on a tree Sunday at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the central Mexican town of Cerro Prieto.Miguel Tovar / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Felipe Calderon unveiled a sweeping plan Sunday to curb logging and protect millions of monarch butterflies that migrate to the mountains of central Mexico each winter, covering trees and bushes and attracting visitors from around the world.

The plan will put $4.6 million toward additional equipment and advertising for the existing Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, covering a 124,000-acre swathe of trees and mountains that for thousands of years has served as the winter nesting ground to millions of orange- and black-winged monarch butterflies.

Calderon said it would help boost tourism and support the economy in an impoverished area where illegal logging runs rampant.

"It is possible to take care of the environment and at the same time promote development," the president said.

The new initiative is part of ongoing efforts to protect the butterflies, which are a huge tourist attraction and the pride of Mexico. In some areas, officials can even be found standing guard along highways and slowing cars that might accidentally hit a butterfly flying across the road.

The plan also meshes nicely with one of Calderon's main policy planks: protecting the environment and combatting global warming. He has drawn up a national anti-global warming plan and committed to plant some 250 million trees in 2007.

While the monarch butterfly does not appear on any endangered species lists, experts say illegal logging in Mexico threatens its existence in North America because it removes the foliage that protects the delicate insects from the cold and rain.

"By even taking a single tree out near the butterfly colony you allow heat to escape from the forest and that then jeopardizes the butterflies," said Lincoln Brower, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Florida and at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va.

Brower, who has studied the insects for 52 years, described the Mexican nesting grounds as "the Mecca of the whole insect world."

The reserve already receives some $36.4 million in government funding, and its staff includes a team of park rangers who patrol the area equipped with assault rifles and body armor searching for armed gangs of lumber thieves.

The World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation say the efforts are paying off. They say this year saw a 48 percent drop in illegal logging, compared to a year ago.

"We're gaining ground in the fight against illegal logging," Calderon said.

Mexican president Felipe Calderon poses with a Monarch butterfly at the Angangueo community, in Michoacan State, Mexico, during the opening of the 2007-2008 tourist season, 25 November 2007. AFP PHOTO/PRESIDENCIA - Alfredo GUERRERO (Photo credit should read ALFREDO GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)Alfredo Guerrero / PRESIDENCIA

Each September, the butterflies begin their 3,400-mile journey from the forests of eastern Canada and parts of the United States to the central Mexican mountains. The voyage is considered an aesthetic and scientific wonder.

The butterflies return to the U.S. and Canada in late March, where they breed and cycle through up to five generations before heading back south. Scientists say they are genetically programmed to return to Mexico, where they settle into the same mountains their ancestors inhabited the year before.

According to Brower, sometimes they even return to the exact same trees _ probably because previous monarchs have marked the area through a mechanism scientists don't yet understand.

The monarchs that spend the winter in Mexico do not reproduce until they return to the U.S. and have a much longer life span than those born in the spring and summer.

Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Mexico program, applauded Calderon's plan.

"This is the longest migration of all insects, a unique phenomenon and a natural wonder and Mexico has the biggest responsibility to protect them because they come here to hibernate," he said.

Brower said the monarch isn't at risk of extinction because it can be found in Mexico, Canada, the U.S., most of South America and even parts of Australia and New Zealand. But disappearing habitat could threaten a delicate migratory route that has existed for an estimated 10,000 years.

"The whole migratory phenomenon which involves two continents and over a million square miles could just go down the drain," he said.