Their existence threatened, monarch butterflies didn't receive the protection hoped for under the Endangered Species List in a recent announcement. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Dec. 15 there were "higher priority" species in need.
Then came a report from Austin, Minn., as a reminder the regal beauties are resilient like few other creatures in the wild.
On Aug. 26, a local boy placed a small, adhesive tag on a monarch -- a tracker of sorts -- and sent it on its way. Eighty-seven days and more than 2,000 miles later, the tag was recovered in the butterflies' winter grounds in central Mexico.
The monarch had landed.
It's not the first time evidence of a butterfly in Minnesota has materialized south of the border. But the discovery still stands as a minor miracle given what the pollinators are up against.
Already a species whose habitat of native flowering plants is under threat, they migrate south by the millions every fall from the United States and Canada. There are risks of harsh weather and predators, too. It's estimated only 30% to 70% survive the long miles south.
The Minnesota-to-Mexico connection started when Hunter Peters, 11, placed tag "ABUL 048" on a male's wing, one of more than 50 monarchs tagged that day at a local outdoor center, said director Luke Reese. They were among more than 400 captured, tagged and released there in August and September. The tags came from Monarch Watch, a conservation organization that distributes more than a quarter of a million every fall and tracks their recovery.
Word came of ABUL 048 on Nov. 22 via Facebook. Ellen Sharp, the co-founder of Butterflies & Their People, reported that one of her nonprofit's "forest guardians," Francisco Moreno Hernandez, had found the tag on a leaf Nov. 21, no butterfly in sight. Sharp reached out to Monarch Watch, which tracked ABUL 048 to its Minnesota origins.
ABUL 048 was the first tag of the season found in the 8,000-acre Cerro Pelon sanctuary, said Sharp, whose conservation work is anchored there. Remote and rugged amid fir, cedar and pine, Cerro Pelon is one of several butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan and Mexico, two bordering states where the butterflies colonize. She employs six forest guardians who live in the area, in her mission to support them and the marvels in the air. Monarch Watch provides incentive, too, paying $5 for every recovered tag, money that stretches far in the region. Monarch Watch has reported 323 tags recovered so far in 2020.
Amid the challenges, Sharp said news of ABUL 048 has been a welcome lift.
"It was nice to have something to make us feel tied in again," Sharp said. That the tag was found without its butterfly was different, too, she added. Many times they're recovered on dead monarchs on the ground. But not in this instance.
"It also is encouraging, too, this butterfly could live to mate and migrate to Texas. Who knows?" she said, referring to butterflies' migration back in late February.