Over the last two decades, the eastern U.S. population of monarch butterflies has declined by as much as 90%, mainly due to habitat loss and significantly reduced access to milkweed during their spectacular migration from Mexico to Canada.
It takes three to four generations of monarchs to complete their annual migratory journey – the only such migration on Earth. Overwintering monarchs in Mexico return to the southern U.S. by April, laying eggs on milkweed as they move northward. Their offspring reach the Upper Midwest and southern Canada by early June. One or more subsequent generations continue to breed, until the southward migration begins by September, with the first monarchs reaching Mexico by late October.
Monarchs are dependent on milkweed to reproduce, however milkweed presence has been cut to a fraction of what it once was by modern land use and management actions. To recover monarchs, it is essential to bring back milkweed on a large scale – perhaps by adding as many as 50 million stems per year for the next five years or longer.
The steep decline in monarch numbers is a major conservation concern and regulatory action could disrupt economic activity on a large scale. Unlike many other species, monarch populations can respond quickly to a private sector initiative to improve habitat, and thereby lower the pressure to list the butterfly as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As an added benefit, improvement of monarch habitat will benefit an ecological cascade of pollinators and other species that share these lands.
Sand County Foundation has undertaken a multi-phased partnership initiative to support the recovery of monarchs and associates species by concentrating on farmlands and private rights of way (ROW) within the monarch migration corridor. We are working with these two key groups to protect the economic viability of their operations while restoring habitat on a landscape scale. Actions focus on:
We are working to deliver highly leveraged strategies to inform key partners about solutions, and demonstrate effective and efficient land management changes to cost effectively meet habitat requirements. Like all Sand County Foundation projects, this effort engages a wide variety of partners, who working together can effect large-scale change.
There is widespread agreement that monarch recovery is dependent on conservation on private lands, in part, because there is limited public land suitable for monarch reproduction or habitat in the core migration area.
Leadership by private landowners is essential to monarch recovery. Private lands, particularly grazing lands in Texas and Oklahoma and row crop land in the Midwest, dominate the migration corridor for the Eastern North American monarch population. Prime agricultural lands do not need to be taken out of production, but under utilized lands can be managed to provide essential habitat.
Sand County Foundation is working to limit “jeopardy” exposure of landowners by working with agricultural producers to provide milkweed for monarch reproduction and a variety of nectar-rich plants to sustain monarchs and other pollinators.
Our ongoing partnership development includes agricultural producers, both row crop commodity producers and cattlemen; as well as agricultural companies, both input producers and management companies. This partnership will build a network of habitat patches that, taken together, can help reinforce the globally unique eastern monarch butterfly migration corridor.
Many of Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award® recipients understand the importance of pollinators and have changed their land management practices to improve pollinator habitat. One such recipient is Charles Williams, owner of West Wind Farms and recipient of the 2015 Kentucky Leopold Conservation Award. Through an easement agreement with an electric utility, Mr. Williams planted milkweed and wildflowers on his land for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Jim Hebbe, recipient of the 2012 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award, has added pollinator habitat on his farm through the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program.
You can learn more about Charles Williams’ story on the Leopold Conservation Award webpage, and read Jim Hebbe’s pollinator article in the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation magazine, Rural Route.
Rights of way (ROW) corridors are not a major cause for recent monarch population decline, but their geographic extent and coincidence with the eastern North American monarch range offers an ideal opportunity for ROW companies to be private-sector leaders of monarch recovery. ROWs can be managed to provide monarch habitat without adding to long-term costs and can actually result in reduced threats to service disruption.
Our developing partnership includes several ROW companies and will build a network of habitat patches that, taken together, can help restore the globally unique eastern monarch butterfly migration corridor.