The Monarch Butterfly: YOU Can Help Them Now!

As a child growing up in Iowa in the 70’s and 80’s, monarch butterflies were common. So common that the notion that some day they would be on the verge of extinction would have been laughable. Today, it seems extinction of the monarch butterfly is not an unlikely scenario if current trends in their population decline continues.

But unlike other declining species, species that require hundreds of acres of pristine habitat for survival, the monarch can thrive in our backyards, parks, and other suburban areas with a minimal effort on our part. It’s as EASY as this:

1. Select a spot in your backyard, preferably a sunny spot.
2. Mark off an area in your yard for a butterfly garden.
3. Remove any sod and till the area with a garden tiller or hand cultivator enough to loosen the soil for planting of seeds and already potted plants.
4. In the new garden, plant milkweed species and nectar rich flowers.
5. Maintain the garden by watering and weeding as necessary.

It’s as simple as that!

In the Midwest, there are nearly a dozen different milkweed species. When I plant milkweed, I plant those native to Iowa: Common milkweed, butterflyweed, Sullivant’s milkweed, and swamp milkweed. I’ve collected seed in the wild from ditches and prairie remnants. Some species like Sullivant’s milkweed no longer exist in the area, so I’ve ordered seed online from a fine native plant nursery: “Prairie Moon Nursery”; other sources exist. Monarchs are not that picky and any of the milkweed species listed above are acceptable to them. Be patient though, because from seed, it may take a couple of years before milkweed plants reach mature size.

Planting other flowers with the milkweed is a good idea. I choose prairie plants native to Iowa: prairie blazing star, rough blazing star, pale purple coneflower, stiff goldenrod, native asters, and others. Planting these species will provide nectar sources and attract monarchs to your yard where they will find the milkweed you planted.

If enough people take these steps, the monarch might again be common.

In future posts, I will be sharing my efforts to help the monarch in my yard. I hope I have encouraged at least one person to join the effort to save the monarch butterfly. The world will not be as interesting without the monarch.

I leave you with this quote from Beebe:

“The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” — William Beebe

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:

http://www.prairiemoon.com/

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

http://www.monarchwatch.org/

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

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The Monarch Butterfly

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Common Milkweed (Asclepias Syriaca) in bloom

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Common Milkweed seed pod

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Butterflyweed (Asclepias Tuberosa)

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Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata)

The Changing View

The open views of Iowa and the American Midwest are changing- becoming cluttered with an ever increasing number of wind farms and high power transmission lines. Iowa by 2030 will have wind farms blanketing vast expanses of its counties and high power transmission towers taller than the Statue of Liberty. Names like “Rock Island Clean Line” mask the reality of a project that will forever help to eliminate the legendary open views that Iowa and the American Midwest are known for.

Wind turbines, wind farms, and high power transmission lines have their place. No environmentalist can deny the need for clean energy, but it seems profit minded utility companies and rich investors are taking the extreme approach of “carpet bombing” the Midwest with little regard for the wildlife and natural areas that remain. Some northern Iowa counties have lost their unclutterred views to a sea of wind turbines; the landowners given chump change, compared to the profits reaped, for renting their land. There needs to be some balance brought into the planning of these wind farms so wildlife can exist and wind power can still be harnessed. Giving the utility companies and wealthy investors the power to divy up our open Midwestern views is wrong.

The negative effects of wind turbines and high power transmission lines on wildlife is clear. Bird, bat turbine collisions, abandonment of nesting sides, service roads, etc. Wildlife can not thrive on a wind farm or near high transmission power lines. Wildlife vacates the area and with no alternatives disappears. Is this what we want as the price for clean energy? Can a balanced approach be made that preserves the integrity of natural areas, free of wind turbines and power lines? The uncompromising profiteering promoters of wind farms see only profit from our open Midwestern views. Not realizing that these uncluttered expanses are an integral part of what we Midwesterners love about home.

Myriad of Threats Towards Nature

If you care about nature, there is no time like the present to do something to try to stem the tide of destruction and take up restoration of even the tiniest area of habitat. There’s a myriad of environmental causes to choose from. I will focus on two such issues facing wildlife and ecosystems in Iowa and the Midwest.

1. Loss of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acres: For the past two decades, millions of acres have been planted with prairie grasses and wildflowers to put farmland out of production temporarily for periods ranging from 5 – 10 years. This program has been a boon to prairie bird species for obvious reasons. Recently, due to record commodity prices, a reverse trend of putting CRP land back into production has escalated. Drastic declines are predicted for prairie bird species as a result. This highlights the need for permanent and large acreage prairie restorations.

2. Endangered Species: Bit by bit we are losing multiple endangered species every day to extinction. There is still animosity among many towards the Endangered Species Act in general. Case in point is the fate of the Lesser Prairie Chicken. Numbers of the bird have plummeted in recent years, approaching a 95 % decline in the last decade. The bird’s fate makes it more than worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act. Yet powerful oil and gas interests are fighting hard to stop the bird’s listing under the Act because of the federal regulations that would come into play. Some of these interests have formed “dummy” non-profits to “help” the Lesser Prairie Chicken. The species is doomed if oil and gas interests are its only champion. Emails and letters to the FWS and legislators are needed to speak for the Lesser Prairie Chicken.

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Become Part of the Natural Community

Some people. Actually the vast majority of people view nature as a commodity to be used any way man sees fit. These people see little need to preserve nature. For endangered species unable to survive, oh well, it’s survival of the fittest. There’s little empathy for the last patch of virgin prairie bulldozed to oblivion or when the last prairie chicken lek disappears. For some, “things” created by mankind are all they need to be content. Those that can’t empathize with nature or lament its destruction have not recognized nor do they believe that man is part of the natural community. The sad truth is that those with this view of nature own land with our scarce natural communities. Callous disregard of these natural communities by these land owners robs us all.

The alternative is simple. View yourself as part of the natural world. Let this belief guide how you treat the land and its natural communities. Let yourself become a force for the preservation and restoration of nature and enjoy the spirit lifting benefits that result.

Aldo Leopold:

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

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Nature Where Man Wants It

Arguably, true wilderness is gone. In Iowa, the tallgrass prairie as a functioning ecosystem is gone. What virgin prairie remains exists because a decision was made long ago to spare it from destruction. Today, tallgrass prairie restorations are are carefully “placed” wherever allowed, either by private land owners or government conservation departments. Permission to exist must still be granted by man. Native tallgrass prairie no longer colonizes new areas by natural means. In many ways, any tallgrass prairie area today is like a zoo; viable only within the confines of the space it is given to exist by man. Held at bay by plowing and potent herbicides and dependent on man to maintain it with fire.

But it doesn’t have to be so. That tallgrass prairie be relegated to a “zoo”. Efforts are under way to bring back functioning tallgrass prairie ecosystems large enough to be self sustaining. The real challenge for such projects is convincing an indifferent public that the tallgrass prairie deserves a second chance. The general public is indifferent about the prairie because it was gone before most were born. People do not miss the prairie, because they never knew it existed in the first place. It’s hard to preach the gospel of prairie preservation and reconstruction to a public where Big Bluestem is as foreign as an obscure plant from some foreign land.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Life quickly returns to restored tallgrass prairie. Like the adage from the movie “Field of Dreams”- “If you build it, they will come.”

Case in point, the relatively miniscule four acre prairie my family and I restored in rural North Central Iowa starting in 1988. In 1988, this same plot consisted of a barren field of corn stubble. Historic records indicate that the land was tallgrass prairie; first broken around 1870. After a 118 year absence, the prairie “sons” returned home. Compass plant, pale purple coneflower, rattlesnake master, prairie blazing star, big bluestem and other prairie seed was sown. Plants unfamiliar to the 1980’s farmer. As foreign to him as surely the modern day multi-generational high yielding corn hybrids would have been to the Civil War veteran who first broke the prairie sod here so long ago.

Within two years, the first true prairie natives flowered after a centuries absence. Over twenty years later and with the help of the prairie’s fire ally, the restored prairie thrives. The prairie holds no grudges against man.

Compass plants tower over me at 8 feet. A rich tapestry of colorful flowers at every turn. Dickcissels, Western Meadowlarks, yellowthroat warblers, and song sparrows fill the restored prairie with their songs. Spring and Fall migrations have brought golden plovers and upland sandpipers. The summer prairie teems with insects and butterflies. The drone of bees fills the air. Cottontail rabbits and leopard frogs duck in the prairie grass for cover as I approach. Not bad for a former dismal, lifeless field of corn stubble.

“If you build it, they will come.”

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The Great American Monoculture

The American suburban landscape is a sterile one, consisting of introduced bluegrass lawns with foundation plantings of showy European and Asiatic species. Without irrigation and constant applications of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizer, the non-natives quickly wither. Why? Because they are not native here.

A doctoral thesis in psychology could be written to answer the question on WHY Americans see a sterile monoculture as attractive or interesting and why the American public as a whole fails to see the beauty of native prairie species. My theory is this: Neat tidy lawns are a status symbol of American “success” and a way we can symbolize our desire to “fit in” with our neighbors and their sterile monoculture lawns. Shaggy old prairie “weeds” don’t fit the bill.

I also believe the saturation in the American suburban landscape of sterile monoculture bluegrass lawns demonstrates a DISCONNECT between the American public and nature. People don’t want prairie in their yards because they don’t “connect” with it and other native landscapes. The hybrid, Asiatic day lily is an attractive substitute for them.

I argue opposite. The native patch of prairie restoration or plantings of native trees and shrubs in one’s yard forms a connection with the natural, native world we’ve lost. The beauty of the native prairie species outshines the non-native hybrid junk every time and evolved to survive the brutal weather of the American Midwest.