A wide-ranging consortium of Iowa farm organizations, state agencies, agribusiness companies and Iowa State University (ISU) last week launched a ground-breaking strategy to boost Iowa’s monarch butterfly population.

The strategy is a voluntary, statewide effort designed to increase habitat and breeding areas for monarchs in Iowa’s rural and urban landscapes. It will concentrate on planting habitat for the butterflies on less productive farmland and pastures, in buffer strips and other conservation areas, along roadsides and other right-of-ways, and in community gardens and demonstration projects sponsored by the consortium.

The group’s leaders also want to continue momentum in federal conservation programs designed to increase habitat for butterflies and bees. Iowa farmers are leaders in creating high-value pollinator habitat through federal conservation plans, with more than 629,000 acres of habitat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This is a very formal and well-planned effort that folks all over Iowa can participate in to create more monarch habitat," Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said. "I think there is a lot of land out there on our landscape that it would be pretty easy to get more habitat on. We need everyone to engage in this for it to be successful."

Endangered Species Act

Improving habitat, consortium leaders said, will also reduce the potential that the monarch will be declared an endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act and has until June 2019 to make that determination. The determination will be made, in part, on progress made in voluntary conservation efforts.

The new strategy will help Iowa target resources to help monarchs with practices that also make sense for Iowa farmers and others in the state, said Rick Robinson, environmental policy advisor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, which has been a leading participant in the monarch consortium. The Iowa strategy is the first state monarch conservation plan to be structured in such a way as to better document the success of voluntary efforts that hopefully will help avoid a listing by the Endangered Species Act, he said.

Without the Iowa strategy, designation of the monarch as threatened is more likely and could force farmers to change otherwise scientifically-sound production practices, idle productive land and expose them to activist lawsuits, Robinson said.

In addition, if the monarch would ever become listed as threatened, strategy can be converted to a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances. This provides farmers with the assurance that if they implement various conservation activities today, they won’t be subject to additional restrictions if the species becomes listed under the ESA in the future.

"While there are no guarantees that unforeseen activist lawsuits might change things, this proves that Iowa is once again leading states in proactive development of a comprehensive plan to deal with complex environmental challenges in a thoughtful, comprehensive, cost-effective manner without undue federal regulation," Robinson said.

The monarch butterfly, re­­searchers say, faces a number of challenges including the loss of milkweed and nectar plant habitat in its spring and summer breeding ranges. Female monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and the hatched caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. 

Midwest vital

Iowa and other Midwestern states are vital to the success of increasing the monarch population, according to Steven Bradbury, an ISU entomology professor. Roughly 40 percent of all of the monarchs that overwinter in Mexico are estimated to come from Iowa and other Midwestern states, he said.

"We are linking up other states in the region to collaborate work on this issues. What we are seeing in Iowa is the kind of front edge of the partnerships that will be playing out across many states over the next several months to integrate local efforts into state and national efforts."

Participation expected

Northey said he’s optimistic that Iowa farmers and landowners will participate in the strategy to boost monarch populations.

"I think we do all have some acres where we would say that we could do some different management and add habitat," Northey said. "And I think seeing butterflies is something farmers enjoy."

Iowa farmers also view a successful voluntary program as the best chance of avoiding an endangered species designation for the monarch, Northey said.

Adding more milkweed to the Iowa landscape is not likely to cause weed outbreaks and create problems for farmers, Northey added. "We have a lot better tools now to control milkweed, and I don’t think it will be the issue that we might have worried about a generation ago."

Farmers, seed dealers and others are also very cognizant that other invasive weeds, such as Palmer amaranth, have been spread in Iowa by plantings for pollinator habitat, Northey said. "Everyone is very aware of that potential now, and we are unlikely to see that happening again," he said.

Five ways that Iowa farmers can help monarchs:

• Take advantage of farm bill programs to establish monarch breeding habitat. More detail is available at local USDA Service Centers or at nrcs.usda.gov.

• Volunteer to establish monarch habitat on your farm as part of a demonstration project. The Monarch Butterfly Flyway Project is restoring or installing monarch habitat along two north-south migration corridors in Iowa. This project will partner to cost-share new pollinator seeding.

• Follow federal pesticide labels and state regulations when applying pesticides labeled as toxic to bees to avoid unnecessary exposure to pollinators and monarchs. More detail is available at epa.gov/pollinator-protection.

• Use monarch-friendly weed management recommendations for odd areas, roadsides and other rights-of-way. More detail is available at tallgrassprairiecenter.org/irvm.

• Establish a monarch way station, a garden with both nectar plants and milkweeds, where monarchs can find nectar and reproduce. More information is available at monarchwatch.org.