Making a difference for monarchs

Three to four generations of monarch butterflies migrated to their summer ranges last spring. Now, a single generation will return to their wintering grounds only to begin the first leg of the 2020 migration early next year.

“We call them the super generation,” says Mara Koenig of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They live for about eight months, overwintering down in Mexico and waiting for the right conditions to return to their U.S. range in the spring.”

According to Koenig, communications coordinator for USFWS’s monarch butterfly/pollinators program, the largest migration of butterflies make a 3,000-mile journey to Mexico from states south of the Great Lakes and east of the Rocky Mountains. A smaller population migrates from Arizona and the Pacific Northwest toward the California coast. The immature insects spend the next few months roosting and eating in super colonies in a phase called diapause, when their reproductive organs are not mature.

“They develop those organs as they’re migrating north for the spring,” says Koenig. “They’ll do their first round of life cycle around Texas, Oklahoma and the southern United States and then slowly move north with each life cycle.”

Milkweed makes the difference

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 128 million monarch butterflies left in North America, including a non-migratory population in south Florida. Support for saving the species has grown in recent years, spurred by recognition of pollinator preservation and their symbolic value to environmental stewardship.   

“Everybody can play a part in monarch butterfly conservation,” says Koenig. “It takes small, simple actions such as planting milkweed in a garden or even in a pot on your balcony, to having a large swath of landscapes that are conserved for pollinator habitats.”

While various flowering plants provide the necessary nectar needed for nourishment, milkweed is crucial to the species’ survival because it is the only plant capable of hosting developing caterpillars. 

“The monarch caterpillar requires the milkweed plant to survive and go through its life cycle process before it can then migrate back down to Mexico for the winter,” says Koenig, adding that “the plants provide the energy needed to form a chrysalis.”

Butterfly backers are out to change the image of milkweed, long considered a nuisance plant, often difficult to control in landscaping and excluded from windbreak and right-of-way plantings.

“We want to plant over 1 billion stems of milkweed throughout the monarch’s migratory range,” says Patrick Fitzgerald, senior director of community wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation. “It would provide enough habitat for the monarch to increase its numbers and reproduce.”

That’s spurred efforts to encourage gardeners to include ornamental milkweed varieties in landscapes and container gardens. Several colorful species can be cultivated and controlled to prevent them from overrunning garden space.

The National Wildlife Foundation has also partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and dozens of environmental and conservation groups on the promotion of monarch butterfly conservation initiatives.

Fitzgerald authored the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, which serves as a blueprint for community action, recommending 25 steps groups and individuals can take to
help support butterfly conservation and other pollinators.

“We encourage people to look at parks systems, open space, rights of way, schools and other public and undeveloped areas where you could possibly plant and manage areas for monarchs,” says Fitzgerald. “We have a guide online and we have webinars
to help land managers choose seed mixes and understand what decisions they can make that will help the monarchs.

How electric co-ops help

Dairyland Power Cooperative is developing large plots at its solar farms to host monarch butterflies, bees and other pollinators. The habitats include a mix of milkweed, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers and other species. Photo courtesy of Dairyland Power.

Keeping with the seventh cooperative principle of Concern for Community, electric cooperatives, their generation and transmission providers and their statewide associations have embraced monarch conservation.

Vegetation management programs, designed to help maintain the reliability of your electricity, have been adapted to help provide year-round pollinator habitats and food sources for migratory wildlife, including butterflies.

Adams Electric Cooperative, Camp Point, is making deliberate efforts not to spray or mow right-of-way areas where they find stands of milkweed and are marking those areas on its GIS system. It is also considering the possibility of broadcasting milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants to create habitats for monarchs.

Dairyland Power Cooperative, the generation and transmission cooperative for Jo-Carroll Energy, Elizabeth, is developing large plots at all of its solar farms to host monarch butterflies, bees and other pollinators. The habitats include a diverse mix of milkweed, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, cornflowers and other species.

“We also need the other plants that the adult butterflies can use as a food source. They need nectar, so we need other types of plants throughout the range,” says Fitzgerald.

“All those blooming flowers that we see in the fall are a great source for them to fuel up,” says Koenig. “Making sure that those are available throughout the migratory range ensures they have those reserves to go down to Mexico and wait out the winter and enough reserves to start making that migration back north in the spring.”

Along utility pole lines near roadside ditches, across expanses of rural rights of way, and on the grounds of electric substations, power plants and solar arrays, electric cooperatives are working with community groups to make open space even more nature friendly.

“The more habitat that’s created, the more likely there is a possibility for the monarch butterfly population to recover to a resilient population,” says Koenig, noting that the goal is to reverse a decline first identified more than 20 years ago. “We’re creating habitats for monarch butterflies and for other pollinators, including grassland songbirds. Upland game birds and even waterfowl can benefit from this.”

Officials at the National Wildlife Foundation agree. They’re particularly optimistic about the potential of partnerships with electric co-ops, other utilities, state and local transportation departments and railroad operators.

“They manage those strips of land that we would call wildlife corridors or monarch corridors,” says Fitzgerald. “When we plant more milkweed and more native flowers in these areas, it could make a big difference.”