Sand County Foundation partners to support habitat

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Farm Forum

If someone asked you to name a butterfly species, chances are the monarch would be the first to come to mind. Known for its iconic orange, black and white speckled wings, the monarch elicits thoughts of fields of wildflowers on a sunny day, or a memory of trying to catch one to observe it up close.

Although monarchs are still around, their numbers have diminished significantly due to a variety of issues such as loss of critical overwintering sites in Mexico, expanding urban development, and modern agricultural practices.

The monarch’s beauty is perhaps only rivaled by its impressive annual migration. It takes three to four generations of monarchs to complete the journey, which is the Earth’s only known multiple generation butterfly migration. Monarchs that overwintered in Mexico return to the southern states in March and April, laying eggs on milkweeds as they move northward. Their offspring reach the Upper Midwest and southern Canada in May and early June. One or more subsequent generations continue to breed through the summer, until the southward migration begins in late August and September, with the first monarchs reaching Mexico by late October.

During the 1990s, an estimated one billion monarchs made the epic migratory journey, but recent estimates indicate the population has declined as much as 90% in the past 20 years. A key factor is the near elimination of milkweed.

Female monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, making them dependent on the plant for reproductive success. Once a caterpillar emerges from the egg, it feeds exclusively on the plant while it undergoes several molting stages until it becomes an adult butterfly, and is able to feed on many nectar-rich plants.

However as modern weed control practices have spread across the agricultural landscape, we’ve practically eliminated milkweed from our fields. This has come at a high cost to the monarch.

There’s no need to remove any land from agricultural production if we take the opportunity to restore monarch habitat on non-farmed areas of the landscape. Farm buffers, fencerows, wetlands, farmsteads and utility rights-of-way can be managed to include milkweed, flowering forbs and beneficial plants for monarchs as well as bees and other pollinators that are so important to agricultural production.

The monarch population has dwi ndled to the point where the US Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing it as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A listing would take a toll on farmers and ranchers working in the monarch’s migratory range. But, we can take voluntary action today to advance the monarch population recovery and avoid a listing.

Recognizing the importance of monarchs, several groups are already stepping up to the plate to help. The agricultural industry and organizations such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service are funding pollinator projects, and university researchers are developing better field techniques. In urban areas, groups are educating residents on how to plant milkweed to give monarchs more opportunities lay eggs.

Early planning stages for monarch habitat restoration are also taking shape. The Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation is partnering with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and other agricultural organizations to support useful steps farmers and ranchers can take to help create habitat without negatively impacting their livelihoods.

Whether you are a farmer, rancher or an urban dweller, there are many things you can do contribute to improving monarch habitat. For more information, visit the NRCS website or monarchwatch.org.

Homer Buell is the owner of Shovel Dot Ranch, Sand County Foundation board member, former NCBA board member; and 2012 Leopold Conservation Award recipient.