It Doesn’t Take Much

In my nearly thirty years of habitat restoration efforts, one thing I’ve learned is that nature will respond to even the most miniscule of efforts to restore habitat.

My family’s 2.5 acre prairie restoration and small adjoining windbreak in North Central Iowa which started as a field of corn stubble in1988, has yielded results far exceeding what we expected. The habitat we’ve nurtured has attracted prairie birds like meadowlarks and dickcissels. Migrant prairie birds like American Golden plovers and upland sandpipers. A multitude of butterlies and dragonflies that I need to learn to identify. Early in our efforts, there was the signs of a badger. The Summer prairie teems with life.

In the windbreak we planted, the common yellowthroat sings from the honeysuckle bushes at the edge of the prairie. Brown thrashers lurk in the denser parts of the windbreak, and a male song sparrow bursts with song from gray dogwood.

Not bad for a former field of corn stubble. It doesn’t take much effort to bring nature back, the will to do so is the first step.

The Frustration of Present Day Prairie Preservation

As a person who cares about tallgrass prairies, it is frustrating as hell to to live in the present. Put me in a time machine and send me back to 1870’s Iowa and I could understand the feelings of pioneers as they worked to plow the virgin prairies to farm the land and support their families. These people did not hate the prairie, and they would probably be more inclined than present day man to feel its loss.

In the present, we have lost our connection to the prairie and nature in general. Most people have never known the prairie, so I can’t blame them if they don’t recognize its value in those situations where they actually encounter the shattered prairie remnants that exist. My frustration is not with these people.

My deepest frustration is with the people and organizations that profess to be environmentalists, yet miss opportunites to really make a difference. Without land ownership, there is no habitat. Without habitat, there is no nature.

Many environmental organizations have decent “hearts”. Many spend all of their resources lobbying Congress or engage in lawsuits to stop the destruction of natural resources. Certainly, these activities have value. But without protected habitat, species never have and never will survive.

For the tallgrass prairie, the opportunity to save the ecosystem was lost nearly a century ago. The only hope for the prairie now is for restoration. Many prairie enthusiasts and those who command resources to buy habitat or land for restoration often see prairie restorations as “second class citizens”. They say that no prairie restoration can truly replace a virgin prairie. Agreed. But if a meticulous prairie restoration restores 100+ plant species on the scale of hundreds or thousands of acres to restore a “functional” prairie ecosystem, shouldn’t this be our goal? The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is an example of something large scale.

The best and only sensical model to restore the tallgrass prairie to its rightful role as a functional ecosytem is to buy land, meticulously restore the prairie, then repeat. The frustration is that the will and desire to do this is missing from most environmental organizations.

The End of the Monarch Butterfly

What was once common is no longer common. The monarch butterfly, arguably the most recognizable butterfly in North America is apparently headed towards extinction. The causes of its demise are twofold: Destruction of the forests in Mexico where it spends the winter and the destruction of milkweed plants on which its larvae feed. I remember this butterfly being the first butterfly I recall as child growing up in Iowa. Last year I saw none. Scientists say the population began crashing around 2010.

The monarch lays its eggs on milkweed plants in the United States, however these milkweed plants are being lost to powerful new herbicides wiping the plant out of the ditches, end rows, and fencelines of the American Midwest. Without the milkweed, there is no monarch butterfly.

But there is something anyone can do to help the monarch butterfly. PLANT MILKWEED species in your yard along with other nectar producing flowers. Monarch butterflies will readily lay eggs in milkweed plants planted in a suburban setting. SO THIS IS ONE SPECIES THE AVERAGE PERSON CAN HELP BY PLANTING MILKWEED IN THEIR YARD.

As for sources of milkweed, seek out seed from milkweed plants in your area. Common milkweed (Asclepias Syriaca) is probably the most common milkweed and can still be found in many areas like ditches and prairie remnants. But there are other milkweed species out there like swamp milkweed and butterflyweed to name a few. Seek out milkweed seed for free in ditches and prairie remnants where possible. Otherwise, milkweed seed can be purchased from many nurseries that specialize in native prairie species.

Here is one source:

And check out this organization who’s mission is to save the monarch butterfly:

The bottom line is that we can save the monarch butterfly from extinction if we act now!

MORE INFORMATION on the monarch’s demise:

New York Times Article on Monarchs


The Monarch Butterfly


Common Milkweed (Asclepias Syriaca) in bloom


Common Milkweed seed pod


Butterflyweed (Asclepias Tuberosa)


Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata)