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Mexico: The Butterfly Effect: Do Monarchs' Woes Signal Broader Problems?

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 ANGANGUEO, Mexico - On a high mountain slope in central Mexico, a patch of fir trees looks dusted in orange and black. In fact, millions of monarch butterflies cloak the trees. The forest murmurs with the whir of their flapping wings.

Every year, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies _ each so light that 50 together weigh barely an ounce _ find their way on what may be the world's longest insect migration, traveling the length of North America to pass the winter in central Mexico.

Yet the great monarch migration is in peril, a victim of rampant herbicide use in faraway corn and soybean fields, extreme weather, a tiny microbial pathogen and deforestation. Monarch butterfly populations are plummeting. The dense colonies of butterflies on central Mexican peaks were far smaller this year than ever before.

Scientists say Mexico's monarch butterfly colonies _ as many as several million butterflies in one acre _ are on the cusp of disappearing. If the species were to vanish, one of the few creatures emblematic of all North America, a beloved insect with powerhouse stamina that even school kids can easily identify, would be gone.

"We see these things as so delicate. But if they migrate a distance of some 2,000 miles, from Canada all the way down to Mexico, they are pretty tough," said Craig Wilson, a scientist at Texas A&M University.

The distinctive orange-and-black monarch is enshrined as the state insect or butterfly of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia. It's also the symbol of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which binds Mexico, the United States and Canada.

When President Barack Obama met with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Feb. 19 in Toluca, they agreed to establish a working group to ensure the conservation of the monarch butterfly.  

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