Amanalco de Becarra, (Mexico): For years, park rangers and conservationists working around Mexico's Nevado de Toluca volcano chased rumours of a monarch butterfly colony that wintered high in a forest of oyamel firs in some corner of the 132,000-acre national reserve.
Local woodsmen would report seeing some of the butterflies fluttering about and scouting teams would scramble to trek into the forest. They eventually narrowed their search to a swath of communal lands more than 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) above sea level on the northwestern side of the park, but still couldn't find the colony.
"It was like an urban legend," said Gloria Tavera Alonso, a regional director with Mexico's agency for protected natural areas. Just a few days before Christmas though, a handful of communal landowners were on a routine patrol of their forest when they discovered the monarchs on a steep mountainside bisected by a dirt track far from the volcano's iconic crater. The butterflies were hidden in plain sight.
In towering firs, they hung in massive clumps on sagging boughs, their brilliant orange and black colours concealed by the pale underside of their closed wings. Jose Luis Hernandez Vazquez, a local forester, said landowners initially worried about announcing the find. "We didn't make a big deal," he said.
Instead, he contacted the agency for protected natural areas and other government stakeholders, who came to confirm the existence of the colony in mid-January.
At the end of last month, Mexican officials announced that the overall population of monarch butterflies wintering in central Mexico was up 144 per cent over the previous year. Researchers found the butterflies occupying 15 acres of pine and fir forests in the mountains of Michoacan and Mexico states, compared to only 6 acres the winter prior.
The monarch butterfly population, like that of other insects, fluctuates widely depending on a variety of factors, but scientists say the recoveries after each big dip tend to be smaller, suggesting a decline in the number migrating from Canada and the United States. This winter's population figure, however, was the largest since 2006-2007.
Officials also want to protect the habitat where butterflies have found the ideal combination of climate, fresh water and flowers to spend the winter and mate. While some colonies are open to the public, government officials say the newly registered colony in Nevado de Toluca won't be.
Mexico has had success with recent efforts focused on illegal logging in the butterflies' habitat. But logging is still visible within the park, even though officials say it is carefully regulated and mainly aimed at removing diseased or wind-downed trees....