Mexican President Vicente Fox has announced a program to protect the forests that are used as a winter haven by hundreds of millions of Monarch butterflies every year. A fund created by the government and private foundations called the Monarch Trust will pay local residents to stop cutting down trees and to grow additional forests in the areas visited by the butterflies. Fox visited the area recently and earmarked $12.4 for the job.

Each year, between 25 million and 170 million orange-and-black Monarch butterflies complete a journey of more than 3,000 miles from the United States and Canada to reach a butterfly reserve located in a small area of pine forest in the central Mexican states of Mexico and Michoacan. The butterflies return to the north in February and March.

This amazing migration is still little understood by scientists and the size of the butterfly population varies widely from year to year. Numbers can rise with good weather and healthy milkweed plants in the southern United States, where monarchs lay their eggs during the spring after their return from Mexico, while it can diminish from cold snaps.

The monarch migration has been a topic of increasing international alarm in recent years as illegal logging of the pine and other trees in the Sierra Chincua reserve threatens the butterflies? winter home.

This year biologist Eligio Garcia says there are reports that a large number of butterflies, around the peak of 170 million that arrived in 1995-96, will be flocking to the protected reserve to spend the winter.

?In the next month, when the colonies are stable, we can begin taking data to know the population?s size,? Garcia says. ?But in the Sierra Chincua sanctuary, for example, last year there was one colony and this year the reports we have show three colonies, which means at least twice as many butterflies, at least in this area.?

Butterfly biologist Lincoln Brower says it?s likely too early to forecast butterfly numbers, since the increases at Sierra Chincua could mean the monarchs are concentrating there to escape illegal logging at nearby settlements. ?The early reports on butterflies are probably premature, but I hope he is right,? says Brower, a professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

A study by Mexico?s environmental protection agency Profepa estimates that in past decades 60 percent of the forest in the reserve has been degraded, reducing the number of trees that lure the monarchs there year after year.

150 Mexican federal police and Profepa inspectors now patrol the area?s forests and roads, looking for signs of logging. This is a sharp jump in numbers from last year, according to Garcia. ?The government is apparently getting its act together. But it?s got to be more than show. There?s got to be strong and persistent monitoring,? says Brower.

Garcia feels that locals are coming to realize how much the butterflies need protection. ?As one farmer recently told me, in Mexico conservation has only just begun,? he says. But other local residents complain that the crackdown has forced some of the area?s half million inhabitants to become migrants themselves in order to find jobs. ?We leave and work in other places, like Mexico City,? says Juan Manuel Martinez, who works as a guide in the reserve.

Meanwhile, within the protected reserve, thousands of monarchs perch on tree trunks, plants and dirt trails. ?It?s magic,? says Christina Brandt, a visitor from Germany. ?It?s a real treasure, it needs to be protected by everyone.?

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