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 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.

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.”

20130824-105146.jpg

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.

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.

My Prairie Story

My interest in the prairie started early. Born in 1967, I developed an interest in nature early. Later this evolved into an interest in prairie and prairie restoration when my family bought 80 acres of farmland in Hardin County, Iowa in 1987. That Fall, we staked off two acres of the land with the intention of restoring it to tallgrass prairie. Soon we were scouring the local ditches and railroad right of ways collecting all of the prairie seed we could lay our hands on. Surprisingly, we found quite a few tiny pockets of surviving prairie. Educating ourselves as we went along, we learned to identify the common prairie species by sight both from what they looked like in flower and after they went to seed. Winter soon came and we put our prairie restoration on hold till Spring.

In the Spring, we tilled the plot we chose to restore with a garden sized Sears garden tiller. We recognized the uniqueness of what we were doing as we tilled through heavy corn stubble residue from the previous year and attracted long glances from passing pickup trucks from the road nearby.

Scattering our collected seed to the wind, we were able to cover nearly half an acre that first year. Based on what we had read on prairie restoration, we knew we’d need to be patient as the prairie plants spent their first years developing deep roots with little to show above ground.

Later that Summer, we transplanted rattlesnake master, hoary puccoon, prairie phlox, and others from an area of railroad right of way we had learned was slated for bulldozing. We were happy to augment our restoration with transplanted sods of virgin prairie. More important, we were happy to save the virgin transplants from certain destruction. We learned through our restoration efforts that the last bits of virgin Iowa prairie were still being chiseled away into oblivion. Would there be a day when even these tiny bits would be gone?

By the second Spring, we observed tiny compass plant seedlings and the emergence of small clumps of big bluestem and Indian grass. Slowly the prairie was returning to where it had been absent for 115 years.

By the third year, the prairie took off. By the fourth year, we burned the first half acre and through more local seed collecting had reseeded the remaining acre and a half.

Twenty something years later, this two acre restoration exceeded our expectations. The transplanted species have prospered and spread. Our success was highlighted a decade ago when the Hardin County Roadside Management director contacted us about the prairie he discovered one Summer day as he and his crew spot sprayed thistle patches in county ditches. “Was it virgin prairie?” he asked. He could not tell the difference.

Our restoration is a sense of pride. Not pride in ourselves, but we were proud that at least on this tiny speck of land in a sea of corn and soybeans, the prairie, not the bulldozer, won.

20130713-091820.jpg

A Hero of Mine

Outside of the prairie enthusiast world, the name Ada Hayden probably doesn’t register. Ms. Hayden, a native Iowan born in 1884, connected with the prairie on her parents farm near Ames, Iowa. Following her love of botany and prairies she excelled in botany at Iowa State University in the early part of the 1900’s.

You can read more here: Ada Hayden

Prior to her death in 1950, Dr. Hayden championed preservation of the tallgrass prairie, identifying remaining prairie sites in Iowa and recommending their protection. The Hayden Prairie in Iowa, named after Ada, is one of the sites she identified and recommended to be preserved. Many more of these sites, now preserved, owe their very existence to her as well.

It’s hard to imagine what the mindset of the general public and legislators was in Iowa in the waning years of World War II, when a female botanist from Iowa State University pressed for preserving prairie. Were her recommendations taken seriously? What was the public attitude towards preserving prairie? In the present, some 70 years after Ada Hayden’s recommendations, has the public’s attitude towards saving prairie changed? Is there any urgency or desire to, as Ada Hayden did, to scout out and try to save any remaining prairie?

I’ve been to the Hayden Prairie Preserve in Howard County, Iowa several times. It’s a lonely survivor, surrounded by a sea of tamed agricultural land. I’ve stood on this prairie and imagined what this area looked like before this prairie became an isolated island. I imagine too what I would discuss with Ms. Hayden if I could bridge time and happened to meet her as I wandered HER prairie. Would she be pleased with the prairie lands now preserved because of her efforts? She should be.

20130713-022326.jpg

The Love of Tallgrass Prairie

What is so special about tallgrass prairie? I’ve noticed that most people who are prairie enthusiasts are usually extremely passionate about their love of prairies. I consider myself in this lot.

So let me try to articulate my love of tallgrass prairies. Another naturalist once said that to experience a tallgrass prairie, you need to walk out in it. Wade through the tallgrass and wild flowers. Simply driving past a prairie will not do.

As I walk into a prairie I am drawn into a complex world. A virgin prairie is a primeval place which takes no direction from the world of man. Every square inch of prairie is different from every other square inch. Grasses like Big Bluestem compete with prairie wildflowers for sunlight. Butterflies and dragonflies flitter around me. A clump of brilliant orange Butterfly weed catches my eye. Then I see flashy pink prairie phlox. I wonder why I didn’t see either just a moment before as I exited my car. By now I’ve forgotten man’s world of mono cultures and artificial order.

Persons wanting to experience biodiversity need not leave the American Midwest. One acre of high quality virgin tallgrass prairie can easily contain 200+ plant species with an equal variety of insects, birds, and reptiles. The diversity of the prairie makes every visit one of exploration and surprises.

The rarity of tallgrass prairie also attracts me. While the Amazon rain forest continues to be leveled in the present, the tallgrass prairie was relegated to minuscule scraps and is now 99.9% gone in Iowa. This has been the case since the mid 20th century. Take a walk in a tallgrass prairie and you are time traveling to an Iowa landscape that doesn’t exist.

It’s time for me to leave the prairie now. I exit as I step foot on the non-native bluegrass that covers the parking area.

Simplification

I stumbled across the “Iowa Geographic Map Server” website tonight.

It is here: Iowa Geographic Map Server

On this site, you can access aerial photographic maps of Iowa dating from the 1930’s till the present. Pick a random area. Trace the vegetative cover and land use through the decades. From this exercise, I’ve come to several conclusions.

1. The concept of a “family farm” is largely long gone. The disappearance of individual family farms is evident as farming has taken on a strong corporate character hellbent on making a profit at any cost.

2. Because of the growth of corporate farms and disappearance of family farms, the nature of the land has changed. The aerial maps from the 1930’s show farmsteads with substantial windbreaks, pastures, crooked streams, and idle areas. If the resolution was better, I suspect we’d see hard working families with a strong connection to the land, conscious of the connection between their prosperity and the health of the land they worked.

3. The aerial maps of the present show a loss of most of the windbreak bounded family farms. The more “willy nilly” nature of the land has been replaced by featureless corporate owned “fence row to fence row” monoculture tracts distinguished only by the roads that give access, hog confinements, and rows of wind turbines. My present day travels tell me that my observation here is spot on.

We’ve lost a lot of the natural world in Iowa in the last 80-some years. Evident even on high altitude aerial photographs.