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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chasing Butterflies -- Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle Is An Erudite Guide To Much More Than Monarchs

Special To The Seattle Times

Although naturalist Robert Michael Pyle's twelfth book is called "Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage" (Houghton Mifflin, $28), he didn't focus just on the famous orange-and-black winged butterfly during his travels for the book.

Along the Snake River in Idaho, for example, he writes of seeing "Four sleek and serpentine otters. . .looping in the canal, rising, diving, munching something." Soon he's driving along the canal, looking for otters.

The town of Fredonia, Ariz., is known as the home of the white tail squirrel, and Pyle explores "several roads in the pines around Jacob Lake, scanning for a black-and-white flash crossing my path. . ."

At Meteor Crater he searches for white-throated swifts. Near the Mexican border he heads into the Chiricahua Mountains "partly because they are a good place to see several species of fall-flying butterflies other than monarchs."

Other than monarchs? Why the otters and squirrels and birds and other butterflies? Is Pyle so easily distracted?

At a Ballard pub on a quiet Sunday evening, Pyle pleads guilty - with extenuating circumstances.

"Every time there was a monarch," he says, "boy, absolutely everything else was out.

"But I'm a general naturalist. If there's an interesting person or story or another animal - I'm crazy about otters, obviously - I cannot conceive of boredom. Some of the places I was in were not very promising. But they were never boring.

He sums up, like the part-time professor that he is:

"It's not so much that I'm easily distracted. But in the absence of my primary focus, I'm easily attracted."

Pyle, 52, lives in the lower Columbia River community of Gray's River, Wash. He looks and acts as we think naturalists should look and act. His voice is husky but soft. His long white hair curls around his shoulders, and his white beard is full. He likes his beer cold and microbrewed. He is, by turns, polite, enthusiastic, quirky (he has named his automobile "Powdermilk" and a beloved butterfly net "Marsha"), but steel enters into his voice when he speaks of various, short-sighted environmental policies. Occasionally his fist will rap the table for emphasis.

As a child he collected seashells - an expensive and frustrating hobby in land-locked Colorado - but in 1958 his step-brother asked him to help catch bugs and butterflies for a Boy Scout project.

"(My stepbrother) quit the next day," Pyle remembers, "and I never did."

A year later, at the age of 12, Pyle was butterfly-hunting at his stepmother's cabin when he looked over a ridge and saw people with butterfly nets. These weren't just any old butterfly collectors, but Paul Ehrlich and Charles Remington, whom Pyle recognized as "the living gods of butterfly studies." It was as if a little leaguer had come across Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle on the local baseball diamond.

The scientists were summering at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and Pyle, though a shy child, went down and introduced himself. The two men encouraged Pyle throughout his adolescence - with letters in the winter and visits in the summer.

Eventually Remington became Pyle's major professor at Yale, and was even indirectly responsible for the genesis behind "Chasing Monarchs."

Remington and Pyle were riding to a butterfly site in western Colorado in 1974 when they spotted a monarch by the side of the road.

At the time it was believed - and still is, in many circles - that all monarchs east of the continental divide wintered in Mexico, while monarchs west of the divide headed for the California coast.

Pyle remembers asking Remington, "Is this (monarch) really going to go to the California coast from here?"

Remington's response - that monarchs in the Great Basin were statistically insignificant - didn't satisfy Pyle, and twenty years later, when Houghton-Mifflin gave Pyle the opportunity to track the migratory movements of the monarchs, he jumped.

But exactly how does one follow a butterfly?

Pyle started in Washington state in August 1996, capturing and tagging monarchs (our state is at the northern limit of the butterfly's range). A monarch tagged in the north and discovered in the south will give some idea of its migration pattern. Also, whenever Pyle spotted a monarch - tagged or not - he wrote down its location and followed accordingly by car, noting the direction the butterflies were headed when he last saw them. From there, he followed logical monarch pathways, driving or walking along rivers and streams. In this way the monarchs led him on a twisting and turning path into Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and ultimately Mexico. Because he dawdled a bit in Oregon he always seemed a week or two behind the majority of monarchs. Thankfully, some of the butterflies were dawdlers, too.

Readers may be disappointed when Pyle doesn't follow the monarchs all the way to their wintering home in Michoacan, Mexico; but, as Pyle says, "Traveling the way I did, sleeping in the car on the side of the road, that's not safe in Mexico."

The lack of a dramatic ending means that the journey itself becomes more important, and, while Pyle occasionally gets bogged down in minutiae, "Chasing Monarchs" is like taking a nature journey with someone erudite enough to correct state park signs. We come to understand monarchs so well that extensive roadside spraying is no longer an abstract issue but a matter of life and death. They're killing off the milkweed! What will the monarchs feed off? How will they survive?

While for a time Pyle worked as a biologist, most of his livelihood now comes from writing. (His books include "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies" and "Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.") In fact, he often finds himself in the position of Paul Ehrlich and Charles Remington in 1959 when they were confronted by a 12-year-old butterfly enthusiast.

"I'll get letters, yes, from kids the same age as I was then," Pyle says with a smile. "They'll tell me my book made all the difference. And it'll make me feel absolutely wonderful."

----------------- Help the monarchs -----------------

Five ways you can help the monarch butterflies take care of themselves

1. Rather than releasing butterflies at weddings, release milkweed seeds.

2. Refuse to take part in transfers and releases of butterflies, allowing monarchs to fly free where they will under their own power.

3. To study metamorphosis in school, find local larvae instead of buying kits or livestock. Release the adults where their caterpillars originated.

4. Participate in butterfly counts and monarch tagging and monitoring. Learn about these from Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org) and Journey North (www.learner.org/jnorth).

5. Join organizations involved in conserving monarchs, such as the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org).

Adapted from "Chasing Monarchs"

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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