Moving Target

 Photo credit: Pablo Leautaud

Photo credit: Pablo Leautaud

My daughter swept a cold-stunned monarch butterfly from under my foot when we were walking the other day, setting it to the trailside so it could continue its migration to Mexico when the weather warmed.  Conservation accomplished!

Alas, thanks to climate change that may not be the case for long.  Over the last 30 years, the Mexican government has established two huge biosphere reserves to protect the monarch’s overwintering sites from threats like logging and clearing for agriculture.

Researchers, however, are finding that the conditions that make these sites ideal for the butterflies are changing.  The biggest problem is more frequent storms, sometimes with snow, that kill many of the butterflies.  Further, models are predicting that the places that will be suitable for overwintering monarchs in 50 years are not in the biosphere reserves.

If plants and animals are to survive climate change, they’ll to have to adapt.  And if our conservation efforts are going to help them, we’ll need to adapt too.  Fortunately, I’m seeing progress on this front.  For example, the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve is promoting shoreline management strategies that protect communities from rising waters in ways that don’t decimate important habitats – because often our responses to climate change are more devastating to nature than climate change itself.  Other organizations are shifting from protecting specific plants and animals to protecting assemblages of landscape features, like unusual bedrock types and complex topographies, which will likely host a variety of life in the future.

For charismatic wildlife like monarch butterflies, the Mexican government is not only going to have to protect the places critical for them today, they’ll need to conserve places that will be vital for them in the future.  Conservation ongoing!