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2-Plants: U.S. monarch experts react ”cool” on EPA’s all clear signal

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TITLE:  Monarchs fluttering through world of new perils
SOURCE: The Los Angeles Times, USA, by Emily Green
DATE:   October 19, 2000

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Monarchs fluttering through world of new perils

For the next month, more than a million monarch butterflies will fly from 
inland California to roost at winter nesting grounds at hundreds of sites 
from Santa Cruz to Baja California. East of the Rocky Mountains, an 
estimated 300 million more monarchs are thought to be passing through Texas 
in a trek from Canada and the U.S. Midwest to wintering sites in Mexico. 
Both migrations, says a conservationist from the Sacramento office of the 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are "on par with the migration of the 
wildebeests of the Serengeti." As the monarchs complete their odyssey, a 
continent-wide debate has erupted afresh over how to protect one of North 
America's most awe-inspiring insects.

In the most intense of three separate arguments, the monarch has become the 
symbol of the movement against biotechnology. The butterflies are 
threatened, biotech's critics say, by corn genetically engineered to emit 
the toxic bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Intended as a control for 
the European corn borer, Bt corn seeds of various toxicities were 
introduced during the last five years and now account for one-quarter to 
one-third of U.S. corn production. This summer, Bt corn covered an 
estimated 22 million acres concentrated down the center of the Corn Belt in 
the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma. Alarmed 
conservationists point out that milkweed growing in that territory is where 
an estimated half of North America's monarchs breed during summer months.

Corn pollen is wind-borne. In 1998, scientists began to question whether 
pollen from Bt corn was being deposited on those milkweed plants and, if 
so, whether it then was harming developing monarch larvae. In May 1999, 
researchers from Cornell University reported in the journal Nature that 
monarch larvae feeding on Bt corn pollen had a 44% mortality rate and that 
survivors were stunted. Subsequent studies at the University of Iowa 
recently underscored the threat. Six months after the Cornell report, it 
was disclosed at a Chicago conference that the U.S. Environmental 
Protection Agency had not conducted tests on the effect of Bt pollen on 
"non-target" butterfly larvae before the government licensed the corn. But 
last month, in a preliminary risk-assessment report, the EPA decreed that 
the threat of Bt corn to monarchs "was not sufficient to cause undue 
concern." though lobbyists for the biotech and corn industries celebrated 
the report, the reaction among America's leading monarch researchers was 

"What we need is to understand if monarch breeding and pollen shedding of 
the Bt corn is co-occuring," said Orley Taylor Jr., head of the Division of 
Biological Sciences at the University of Kansas and founder of the 
monitoring group Monarch Watch. A newly completed field survey may soon 
show that the two events not only occur simultaneously in the Corn Belt, 
but in closer proximity than even the conservationists had imagined.

In a 10-scientist, four-university study led by Michelle Prysby and Karen 
Oberhauser of the ecology department of the University of Minnesota, 
researchers monitored 20 cornfields this summer. They also monitored 
nonagricultural sites within a kilometer of the fields. Against the 
researchers' own expectations, they found just as many monarchs in milkweed 
growing within the cornfields as in milkweed in the nonagricultural sites. 
They also found that, contrary to EPA assumptions, monarchs used the fields 
at all stages of corn growth. "Monarchs use the fields when corn is short, 
and when corn is tall," Oberhauser said. This increases the likelihood that 
the butterflies would be breeding in fields when the corn was shedding the 
toxic pollen. That dangerous overlap, Oberhauser said, seems to be greater, 
the further north you get. After protests following the 1999 Cornell 
findings, use of Bt corn fell from about a third of the national crop to a 
quarter this year. But a spokesman for the National Assn. of Corn Growers, 
Stewart Reeve, said the two things were not necessarily connected. Farmers 
simply used less Bt corn, he said, because the previous year's planting had 
so successfully eradicated pests.

"Farmers need to have access to biotech crops and to selectively use them 
where it makes the most sense for their profitability," he said. As for 
abandoning the product in the event that it is shown conclusively to be 
harmful to monarchs, Reeve said, "Obviously, if the regulatory system comes 
through and says it is no longer approved, we would have no other choice in 
the matter." Oberhauser will present her findings to the EPA, 
conservationists, biotech firms and farmers today in Washington. As they 
meet, the return of the butterflies to Mexico highlights a second dilemma: 
the whittling away of their wintering grounds in the fir forests of the 
Transvolcanic mountains of central Mexico.

More than half of the forests sheltering the Monarchs have been lost to 
illegal logging since the Mexican sites were discovered in 1975. Both 
Oberhauser and Monarch Watch's Taylor are working with a 3-year-old 
charity, the Monarch Sanctuary Foundation, to cooperate with the Mexican 
government in preservation efforts. To Oberhauser, Americans must resist 
pointing fingers and both the Mexican and U.S. governments must examine 
their own policies. "It's so much more clear cut in Mexico," she said. "You 
can go see where there used to be trees where there are fields, and you can 
see the logging tracks. It's less tangible in the U.S.: a few more 
cornfields, a few more housing tracts, a few wetlands being drained. But 
it's just as important."

Meanwhile, west of the Rockies, western monarchs, which take several 
generations to complete their annual migration from the Continental Divide 
to the coast and back, face a third distinct set of threats. Researchers 
Kingston Leong and Dennis Frey of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo say trends as 
diverse as the felling of eucalyptus trees, the development of the state's 
mountainous coastal enclaves and the overzealous weeding along highways and 
railways conspire against the butterflies. But ecologist Stephen Malcolm 
from Western Michigan University said that in his visits to California, he 
has seen admirable flexibility in accommodating the monarchs. "We were 
visiting landowners who were prepared to sign over easements to conserve 
over-winter Monarch habitats on their land," he said. "I think that a 
possible solution would be increased awareness and getting people involved 
in these projects with their own properties."

Frey and Leong agree, encouraging Californians to also plant milkweed to 
support monarch larvae in summer months. Meanwhile, Californians have been 
welcoming the return of monarchs to the coast in style. Last year, Pacific 
Grove attracted 60,000 butterflies. Two weeks ago, the townspeople hosted a 
parade, replete with children dressed in extravagant butterfly costumes. " 
Said organizer Moe Ammar, "We take our monarchs seriously here."

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