Avocados Imperil Monarch Butterflies’ Winter Home in Mexico

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Davíd Romero Hernández, 51, center, trimming grass in his new avocado orchard on the edge of Apútzio de Juárez, in Mexico, in October. Credit Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

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APÚTZIO DE JUÁREZ, Mexico — The green volcanic hills that tower above Apútzio de Juárez have begun to fill with swarms of monarch butterflies, which return each year for the winter stretch of their celebrated — and imperiled — migration.

But downhill from the monarchs’ mountain roost, in the oak and pine forests that border this small farming town, there lurks a new threat to their winter habitat: a lust to grow the lucrative avocados that are being consumed at record rates in the United States.

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Spurred by soaring demand for the creamy fruit, farmers here in the western state of Michoacán are clearing land to make room for avocado orchards, cutting oak and pine trees that form a vital buffer around the mountain forests where the monarchs nest.

“It’s scandalous what people are doing now to grow avocado,” said Arturo Espinosa Maceda, who has for years grown avocados, peaches and strelizia flowers at a farm some 12 miles north of Apútzio. “But it’s mega-business.”

Apútzio sits on the western edge of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a 135,000-acre protected area where the butterflies rest on oyamel, or native fir, trees. The butterflies’ numbers have dwindled sharply in recent years, as milkweed declined in the United States and deforestation affected their Mexican habitat. Each year environmentalists hold their breath to see how many butterflies will arrive in Mexico.

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