By Ann Wessel, St. Cloud Times, Minn.
Scott Glup grew up pulling milkweed from the soybean fields of Nebraska.
This year, he'll seed about 35 pounds of it on 500 to 600 acres of U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service-managed Wildlife Production Areas in Minnesota. Adding milkweed to the mix is one thing FWS is doing to offset monarch butterflies' lost breeding habitat -- and it's one thing conservation groups say everyone from large-scale landowners to backyard gardeners might do to help the species.
"I never, ever thought we'd be planting milkweed," said Glup, project leader for the seven-county Litchfield district.
A 90 percent drop in the monarch population since 1990 has FWS considering a petition to list them as threatened under the endangered species act. A decision is due in August.
Meanwhile, FWS plans to create 200,000 acres of habitat by planting milkweed on land it manages along the Interstate Highway 35 corridor from Minnesota to Texas. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, their caterpillars' only food source.
Lost breeding habitat is only one possible factor in the decline of a species that ranges as far as 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada. Others include lost wintering habitat, pesticide use, climate change and natural enemies.
The eastern population of monarchs winters in Mexico. At 9 months, they're the longest-lived generation, flying south, overwintering and then getting as far as Texas. Their offspring are followed by two or three more generations.
This winter's survey found monarchs occupying 1.13 hectares of forest in Mexico's Transvolcanic Mountains where illegal logging could diminish their habitat. The number is up from last winter's record low of 0.67 hectares but significantly lower than the 20-year average of 6.7 hectares. (There are an estimated 50 million butterflies per hectare. One acre equals 0.4 hectares.)
FWS in February announced a partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish &Wildlife Foundation to jump-start conservation efforts. It granted $2 million to NWF, $1.2 million to NFWF.
"We are kind of at the point where something needs to happen to reverse the trend," said Wendy Caldwell, program coordinator for Monarch Joint Venture, a national partnership that coordinates conservation efforts.
While she doesn't believe monarchs are on the verge of extinction, Caldwell said she's most concerned with losing the monarch migration -- which could dwindle unless every aspect of the life cycle is supported.
"We're really an important region for monarch reproduction," Caldwell said. "The more monarchs we can support in Minnesota, the more will make it to Mexico."
Conducting a comprehensive population survey is only possible where the butterflies congregate in Mexico. Exactly how much land and how much milkweed it takes to make a difference in their breeding range is one thing Monarch Joint Venture aims to find out.
Citizen science efforts -- reports from students and average people who count and monitor the species -- will contribute to that study.
"How much milkweed does it take to produce a monarch?" Caldwell said. "We know what habitat supports monarchs. It's really putting a target out there."
Generally speaking, Caldwell said bigger is better. For example, a network of pollinator gardens spread throughout a city is far more beneficial than a single plot.
Still, Bill Cook, an associate biology professor at St. Cloud State University, said the species roams, and one milkweed can benefit one caterpillar.
"It's more helpful than usual to have a few plants scattered around because the adults travel widely," Cook said. "It actually is a case on a small scale where a little bit can help a little. A couple of plants can help a couple of butterflies."
Gardeners seeking a plant more compact and easily contained than common milkweed might consider swamp milkweed, which thrives in wet areas and produces deep pink flowers; and the orange-blooming butterfly weed, which prefers poor soils. Both benefit monarchs.
"Ultimately, we're losing a real charismatic species that we care a lot about," Caldwell said.
While the focus is on the monarch, a flagship species that nearly everyone in North America can identify, Caldwell and Glup both said what benefits the monarch benefits other species that depend upon prairie habitat.
"It just makes better habitat for everything," Glup said.
That's why FWS is not only incorporating more forbs into new seedings but also reseeding existing plots. The Litchfield district manages 155 WPAs totaling about 36,000 acres. The Rice Lake WPA near Eden Valley is among those that could be reseeded this summer. In some WPAs, a wildflower-heavy mix is reseeded on a few acres within an existing WPA.
The seed cost to plant a grass-heavy mix used to run $10 an acre. Planting 70 species can cost $400 to $450 an acre. Funding provided through the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council helped cover the difference.
The biggest challenge hasn't been the money but surrounding landowners' reaction to Canada thistle. A noxious weed, it crops up in wildflower-heavy plantings. Herbicides kill off desirable species, too. Glup said Canada thistle dies back within 10 years as the planting matures. Mowing is one labor-intensive stop-gap measure.
"By bumping up the diversity of the plants, we get the insects and it makes better habitat for the birds. It just goes right up the chain," Glup said. That includes pheasants. Turkeys. Deer. "You've got to start from the bottom. The plant community out there is kind of like the foundation of our house. If you have a strong foundation, everything up above it that relies on it is better."
Deep-rooted prairie plantings also help reduce erosion and improve groundwater quality.
"It's not just a single-species thing, but it's a potential way to solve a lot of our problems," Glup said.
Follow Ann Wessel on Twitter @AnnWessel.
The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service is considering a petition brought by the Center for Biological Diversity in August 2014 to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species.
By definition, a threatened species is likely to be on the brink of extinction.
After a 90-day review, FWS determined that there was enough information to suggest a listing might be warranted -- partially based on the loss of milkweed due to pesticide use, conversion of grassland to cropland, and development; climate change; monarchs' overuse in education and entertainment; susceptibility to disease and predators; and loss due to pesticides and invasive species. A 60-day comment period closed March 2.
Tony Sullins, FWS chief of endangered species for the Midwest Region, compared interest in this petition with that of the bald eagle's delisting.
"There are very few Americans who don't know what a monarch butterfly is and haven't had some experience with a monarch," Sullins said.
The next step is assessing the biological health of the species -- a study that will involve other states, tribes and agencies.
"It's very important to the American people. Really, it's important to get it right and it's important not to miss important data or meaningful data that may exist -- no matter where it is," Sullins said.
Sullins said if the monarch were listed as threatened, the endangered species act could exempt certain activities from its protections.
"I don't see any enemies to monarch conservation. I see potential partners," Sullins said. "I just think there's a lot of interest and goodwill in the agricultural community and when we put our heads together in the spirit of cooperation, we solve problems like this, especially in the Midwest."
After a panel review, the final decision will be made by the director of the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service.