Monarch butterfly numbers down more than 25%

Mark Stevenson
A guide holds up a dying butterfly in November 2015 at the monarch butterfly reserve in Piedra Herrada, Mexico.

MEXICO CITY - The number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico dropped by 27% this year, reversing last year's recovery from historically low numbers, according to a study by government and independent experts released Thursday.

The experts say the decline could be due to late winter storms last year that blew down more than 100 acres of forests where migrating monarch butterflies spend the winter in central Mexico.

Millions of monarchs make the 3,400-mile migration from the United States and Canada each year, and they cluster tightly in the pine and fir forests west of Mexico City. They are counted not by individuals, but by the area they cover.

"The reduction in the area of forest they occupied this year is most probably due to the high mortality caused by storms and cold weather last year," said Omar Vidal, the head of the Mexico office of the World Wildlife Fund. "It is a clear reminder for the three countries that they must step up actions to protect breeding, feeding and migratory habitat."

Officials estimate the storms in March killed about 6.2 million butterflies, almost 7.4% of the estimated 84 million that wintered in Mexico, said Alejandro Del Mazo, Mexico's commissioner for protected areas. The monarchs were preparing to fly back to the U.S. and Canada at the time the storm hit.

The storms caused the loss of 133 acres of pine and fir trees in the mountaintop wintering grounds. It was the biggest storm-related loss since the winter of 2009-'10, when unusually heavy rainstorms and mudslides caused the destruction of 262 acres of trees.

This year, the butterflies covered only 7.19 acres. Last year, the butterflies covered 10 acres, compared to 2.8 acres in 2014 and a record low of 1.66 acres in 2013. That is still well below the 44 acres they covered 20 years ago.