NAFTA leaders put saving monarch butterfly on trade pact's agenda

Chalk one up for the lowly monarch butterfly.

It's won some love in high places: at this week's summit meeting of the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada.

The monarch, which has seen its numbers plunge in recent years, arose as a topic when President Enrique Pena Nieto hosted President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a meeting Wednesday to review the North American Free Trade Agreement, which created the world's largest trade zone 20 years ago.

"We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries," Pena Nieto told business leaders who'd gathered for the one-day summit in the industrial city of Toluca, about 40 miles west of Mexico City.

In a final statement, amid weighty pronouncements on energy, immigration, border security and job creation, the monarch butterfly earned its place.

"Our governments will establish a working group to ensure the conservation of the monarch butterfly, a species that symbolizes our association," the statement said.

The extraordinary 3,000-mile migration of tens of millions of monarch butterflies each year from the grasslands of Canada and the United States to the volcanic mountain slopes of central Mexico, where they completely cover fir trees, has awed human beings for centuries.


But the population of monarchs hibernating in Mexico from December to March has plummeted from a high of 1.1 billion in 1996 to a pitiful 33 million this year. That was enough to cover only 1.65 acres of forest in December, surveys show, down from 45 acres two decades ago.

Experts once thought the drop was largely due to extreme climate conditions. But many now think there's another factor: The butterfly is starving to death.

The relentless spraying of herbicides in North America is wiping out once-plentiful milkweed, the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat. Small-scale illegal logging also is destroying the fir forest canopy in Mexico that the butterflies use as their wintering grounds in the states of Mexico and Michoacan.

More than 100 scientists, Nobel Prize winners and environmentalists had written to Pena Nieto, Harper and Obama before the summit, calling on them to establish a "milkweed corridor" through the three countries.

The petitioners called for the massive planting of milkweed along roadsides and toxin-free buffer zones in Canada and the United States.

A top environmental group, World Wildlife Fund, hailed the pledge by the three leaders to conserve the monarch.

"This butterfly migration reflects an ancient bond between three nations that predates the countries themselves. Business as usual may permanently sever this bond, but today's pledge gives us renewed hope that we can save the monarch migration for centuries to come," said Carter Roberts, the chief executive and president of World Wildlife Fund.

By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Foreign Staff