Most monarch caterpillars are eaten before they turn into butterflies. The five percent that survive travel vast distances twice each year, crossing mountains, boundaries, and border walls seeking warmer environments to breed and carry on. North American monarch butterflies migrate south between August and November. The ones that spend the summer breeding west of the Rockies head towards California coasts while monarchs breeding further east migrate to Mexico. This year, Canadian ultrarunner Anthony Battah followed his local monarchs 4,500km as they traveled from Canada to Mexico.
The endangerment of the monarch butterfly first came to Battah’s attention as it made the news during the summer of 2022, when an article was published about the Canadian government raising a milkweed field integral to the monarchs’ health. As he continued to dive into the issue, it felt like the culmination of all his environmental concerns—how can we be so reckless with our lifestyles to the point of allowing one of our most important pollinators to become endangered?
Battah’s interest in environmental issues began with the birth of his daughter Laurence. He became acutely aware of the consequences and effects of his actions (and inactions) and how they were often misaligned with her future. He has since spent the last 10 years progressively correcting course and doing his best to influence those around him to do the same.
In 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the migratory monarch butterfly onto its Red List of Threatened Species™. The native population has decreased somewhere between 22% and 72% over the past decade, the reasons for which are multifactorial. Logging (both legal and illegal) and deforestation for agricultural and urban development have destroyed and continue to wreak havoc on their winter shelters while pesticides and herbicides kill milkweed (the host plant their larvae feed on) across their entire migratory path. Climate change has created new temperature extremes killing the butterflies both directly and by stimulating premature migrations before milkweed is available. Droughts are limiting the growth of milkweed and increase the frequency of catastrophic wildfires.
Battah’s Ultra-Trail Monarch was an idea born from a deep desire to take action in the face of a critical ecological situation. The magnitude of the challenge is an illustration of the magnitude of the problem and the solution. As pinnacle pollinators, monarchs play an important role in the web of life, providing sustenance to insects and bird species as caterpillars and pollinating brightly colored wildflowers as butterflies. He has raised just shy of $45,000 thus far, all of which will be directed to organizations recognized for their active role in the conservation of the monarch and their habitat.
We had the privilege of speaking with Battah about the experience.
Prior to monarchs, were you always invested and interested in environmental issues?
My interest in environmental issues began approximately 10 years ago, when my daughter Laurence was born. I suddenly felt so guilty that my actions (and inactions) were often misaligned with her best interest and worse, could eventually harm her. I have since been progressively correcting course and doing my best to influence those around me to do the same.
How was it that you became interested in monarch butterflies?
The endangerment of the monarch butterfly made the news during the summer of 2022, and as I was reading on the subject, it just clicked. How can we humans (me included) be so reckless to bring one of our most important pollinators close to extinction? Did we not learn our lesson with the bees who made the same unfortunate headlines a few years ago? Why wasn’t I aware of this and what could I do to help spread the word?
Can you explain in your own words how monarchs are an “umbrella species”?
They share the same habitat as several other pollinators. So preserving the monarch’s habitat benefits many other species. Here’s what the experts have to say: https://m.espacepourlavie.ca/blogue/en/why-save-monarch-butterfly.
Monarch butterflies are being harmed from all sides. Those (human induced) threats are: habitat loss (mainly because of mass agriculture, urban sprawling, industrial development, commercial and illegal logging), pesticides, parasites & disease, climate change, etc.https://monarchjointventure.org/monarch-biology/threats.
Why should our readers care about monarchs? Especially ones who already care for the environment?
From a human-centric point of view, one of the main reasons we should care about the monarchs is that more than a third of the food that we consume comes from plants that rely on insect pollination https://davidsuzuki.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/02/Conservation-papillon-monarque-milieu-urbain-Canada.pdf
From a more holistic perspective, monarchs are important because all life on earth is interconnected. What affects one species ultimately affects all.
How did you get into ultrarunning?
I have always loved running, relatively short distances, for as long as I remember. But in 2014, a friend convinced me to get out of my comfort zone and participate in a 4-day, 600+ km relay race between Montreal and New York City. The challenge seemed so crazy, I just had to give it a try. I trained hard for several months, pushed harder during the race and made it to Time Square with a tired smile. The rush was amazing, but short lived. Where was my limit? And that’s when I fell in the ultrarunning rabbit hole. And why did you decide it was the strongest way to make this point? Saving our planet and its biodiversity is a daunting feat, similar to an ultra. That said, we can and will pull it off. The Ultra-Trail Monarch is just another humble reminder that when we take action and align our bodies, minds and souls, things get done.
How much money did you end up raising?
We are just shy of 45k. The sums collected will be directed to organizations recognized for their active role in the conservation of the monarch and their habitat.
What was the scariest moment during the journey?
As I crossed into Ohio, something felt wrong with my left Achilles tendon. At first, it was subtle, but as I was getting closer to Cincinnati, it became clear that I was heading towards full-fledged tendonitis. I had to stop and for a moment, I was scared the journey could be compromised. Luck had it that I was meeting up with Harvey Lewis and his high school students the next day, which gave me a morale boost. I ended up taking 2 1/2 days off to rest and fuel. I managed to recover.
What was your fueling regiment like?
Breakfast: black coffee + peanut butter & jelly toast + fruit.
Lunch: homemade smoothie + yerba mate.
Dinner: fruit juice + my wife’s amazing homemade cooking.
AM & PM snacks: All kinds of maple syrup products, apple sauce, mashed potatoes, nuts, oat/granola bars, etc.
Evening snacks: fruits + cereal.
Did you have your own “milkweed” (a consistent, primary fueling source)?
My “milkweed” in terms of fueling is plant-based food. And just like real milkweed, it wasn’t always easy to find some on our route to Mexico.
What was the experience like for your wife and daughter?
They really enjoyed the adventure, despite it being quite challenging. They were my only crew (except the last 4 days in Mexico) and were constantly on the move, taking care of… everything (ie. home schooling, route mapping, transportation, accommodation, groceries/cooking, laundry/washing, public relations, rv repairs, cheering, etc.). UTM was a success because of a true team effort, which makes us all quite proud.