CALGARY -- North America's three leaders, the presidents and prime ministers of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, had some pretty big subjects on their plate when they met this week.
Mexico's resurgent energy industry; resolving the visa dispute; further integrating trade; and butterflies.
It may seem odd the lowly monarch butterfly was on the agenda of these talks, when -- let's face it -- their fate is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the price of bread. But I for one am glad it was, and here's why.
Monarchs like to migrate between Canada and Mexico. They're up here during the warm summer months and head down to the mountains of central Mexico to spend the winter. But the world has been changing and it's having a devastating impact on these iconic orange-and-black bugs.
Monarchs are losing their habitats. Scientists believe global climate change is making their overwintering sites wetter and the spring and summer breeding areas in the U.S. warmer. In summer, if current trends continue, they will have to find even more northerly places in Canada to migrate to.
In addition to the rain, those mountains in Mexico are being affected by an increase in logging of the fir trees they love to call home. In California, many of their roosting trees are disappearing. And in summer, the milkweed plants they love to feed on and lay their eggs on are no longer in abundant supply. The World Wildlife Fund blames climate and pesticides.
A 2013 butterfly census estimated the number of monarchs making the winter trip to Mexico dropped by 59 per cent in one year, falling to the lowest level in 20 years. There are one-15th as many butterflies as there were in 1997, the census reported. All of these influences are adding up to the realization the monarch butterfly is an endangered species. Scientists, environmentalists, writers and artists have noticed and have written an open letter to Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Pe±a Nieto, asking them to agree to create a corridor of milkweed to reverse butterfly declines. And they did. At the end of their meetings, they announced an agreement to set up a task force to devise a plan to saving the monarchs.
"We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America, which unites our three countries," Pe±a Nieto said.
No one knows how many species we are losing each year, because there is no accurate estimate. The WWF states that, most conservatively, the annual loss is as low as 200 species or as many as 2,000. Since many of these species aren't part of our everyday lives, it's hard to get emotionally involved in something you don't even know exists.
Monarchs are different because they are familiar. I've seen these beautiful and harmless entities all my life, and I've come to think of their movements as a rite of spring and fall. If they weren't around any longer, their absence would make the world a tangibly a lesser place.
There is something powerfully symbolic about their potential loss. It represents irrefutable evidence some of the things we are doing to our environment are not good for us. And so, for both symbolic and real reasons, saving monarchs seems like a good place to draw a line in the sand.
The leaders of these three nations, of course, can't act alone to save the monarch butterfly. But the agreement to work together to save something that has no commercial value, but tremendous emotional value, could set the wheels in motion to reverse the farming and logging practices that are pushing these bugs to the edge of extinction.
Is fretting over the fate of a little butterfly insignificant compared to trade talks? Some might think so. But in the long run, it could mean more.
Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.