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Monarch conservation takes flight

Monarch Butterfly

Before spring planting begins, now is a great time to start the prep work to plant habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators, experts say.

Early results from demonstration plots show that if you plant the monarch habitat, the butterflies will find it, says Dana Schweitzer, program coordinator for the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, based at Iowa State University (ISU).

“We see monarch butterflies in our demonstration plots (all across the state),” Schweitzer says. “We hope folks will consider adding more habitat plots this year.”

With their bright orange and black wings, monarch butterflies are some of the most recognizable — and adored — insects in Iowa.

However, the monarch butterfly population has declined by about 80 percent over the past 20 years, according to monarch counts in their winter habitat in Mexico.

Iowa is an important habitat zone for monarch butterflies, particularly in the summer, when they breed and feed on milkweeds and other pollinator-friendly plants and flowers, Schweitzer explains.

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, launched in 2015, is a community-led initiative with a goal to enhance monarch butterfly habitat in the state through collaborative efforts of farmers, citizens and their organizations.

As one of its first actions, the consortium developed the Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy. The strategy helps define what some of the best management practices are to manage monarch habitat, Schweitzer says.

The strategy also shares ideas on how landowners — working in all land-cover types — can get involved in the effort, Schweitzer says.

“That includes agricultural lands, urban and suburban land, rights-of-way and other public lands ...,” Schweitzer says. “It’s going to require all hands on deck in order for any effort that adds more (monarch) habitat into the landscape to actually have an impact for the species population.”

Planting pollinator habitat offers many benefits to Iowa farmers and landowners, says Seth Appelgate, research agronomist for ISU’s monarch research team.

For one, pollinator habitat can beautify the landscape and, over time, reduce the time spent mowing grass, Appelgate says.

“Iowans love to mow. But think of all the time and money you spend on mowing. If we could stop mowing and put in some prairie, it’s cheaper over the long run to establish diverse habitat than to mow,” Appelgate says.

If you’re a hunter or wildlife enthusiast, monarch habitat is also one of the best environments for quail and pheasants, Appelgate says.

In addition, monarch habitat benefits other pollinators, including the rusty patch bumble bee, which recently was added to the Endangered Species list, Appelgate explains.

Schweitzer says research shows that smaller plots of habitat broadly spaced throughout the landscape may be more beneficial to monarchs, as they flutter from one spot to the next, rather than large tracts of land with broad gaps in between.

That’s why Iowa State University (ISU) researchers are studying the best methods for establishing pollinator habitat in non-productive land, such as roadside ditches and unused grassy spots on acreages.

Many livestock farmers are planting pollinator habitat next to hog barns. In addition, utility companies are planting habitat on utility rights-of-way. And new this year, Iowa ethanol plants have joined together to plant “monarch fueling stations” near their facilities.

Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines has also partnered with the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium to encourage all Iowans to protect monarch butterflies through the “Plant. Grow. Fly.” Program.

The program includes educational seminars on how to plant pollinator-friendly prairie gardens, as well as special events at the zoo to teach Iowans of all ages how they can help with monarch conservation efforts.

Additional partners in the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium include ISU, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The consortium also includes conservation organizations, utility service providers, private colleges and agricultural organizations, including the Iowa Farm Bureau.

For more information on how you can help, visit the  Blank Park Zoo’s website at www.blankparkzoo.com or the  Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium at https://monarch.ent.iastate.edu/.

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