From left: Robert Rivard, Rebeca Quiñonez-Piñón, Marianna Treviño Wright, Carey Gillam, and Karen Oberhauser discuss monarchs' future at the "Butterflies Without Borders" panel on Friday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Four experts on pollinators and pesticides discussed broader issues affecting monarch butterflies at a forum titled “Butterflies Without Borders” Friday.

The forum, which was moderated by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard, kicked off the third annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. The group discussed habitat preservation, the monarch migration season, and climate change at the Pearl Stable.

Author Carey Gillam shared findings from her reporting on chemical giant Monsanto’s widely used pesticide Roundup, and how modern agriculture practices affect the world around it. The Society of Environmental Journalists recently awarded Gillam its Rachel Carson Environment Book award for White Wash: A Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science. Gillam also works as the research director for U.S. Right to Know, a group that advocates for transparency in the food system.

“My work and the bigger picture in White Wash is that herbaceous pesticide use in our farming system has gotten to such a level now that we’re seeing the impact in very real ways – on the monarch, on the honey bees, on the soil, on our health,” she said. “Environmental health overall is in danger. The monarch is a little like the canary in the coal mine. There are much wider implications in our future, and we need to create more change not only for the butterfly, but for our children.”

Though Karen Oberhauser, director of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum, acknowledged that pollinators face harsh circumstances, she said monarch butterflies’ ability to change their behavior to adapt to new conditions inspires some hope.

“Monarchs are now in Australia, Hawaii, southern Spain, and Portugal,” Oberhauser said. “When we take monarchs to another place and plunk them down in Hawaii or Australia, they do the right thing for the place. Australia is upside down so they have to fly north, but they do it.”

Though humans are providing butterflies with terrible environmental conditions, Oberhauser said she thinks monarchs can persevere.

“I really do think they’re going to survive all of this change,” she said. “I think monarchs are going to … maintain this incredible migration and be able to switch their behavior from year to year, when we have a more unpredictable and unstable climate.”

Rebeca Quiñonez-Piñón, monarch outreach coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation, agreed with Oberhauser. Preserving monarch butterflies includes preserving their “beautiful, amazing” migratory pathway, which stretches 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico, she added.

“That’s something as human beings we need to treasure and appreciate, and that’s what we need to focus on saving for future generations,” she said.

Quiñonez-Piñón said conserving monarchs helps keep pollinators in the public eye.

“Monarchs are a great ambassador for other pollinators,” she said. “In general, pollinators are struggling. Habitats we create for monarch butterflies are good for all pollinators. Whatever outcome we have, we should keep working on creating monarch habitats, educating people, and ensuring that we keep trying to protect the monarch butterfly.”

Marianna Treviño Wright, National Butterfly Center executive director, said the federal government’s decision to waive environmental laws and build the border wall through the butterfly center would destroy one of the last pieces of native habitat in Texas. And the wall won’t even be on the actual border, Wright said. It will be built 1.2 miles inland, separating the center and other border residents from the Rio Grande River.

“All of our water comes from the only source of freshwater, the Rio Grande River,” she said. “Pumps on the river that keep us alive will all be behind the border wall.”

She said the need to conserve habitat and protect pollinators could be summed up with the North American Butterfly Association’s motto.

“If we can save the butterflies, we can save ourselves,” she said.

The Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival continues Friday evening with “Holy Mezcal, Batman!,” an event about bats, the main pollinators of the agave plant. The festival has events through Sunday, culminating in a free celebration of pollinators at the Pearl. The weekend’s full schedule of events can be found here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.