Photograph Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest via Flickr
According to the National Wildlife Federation, the population of monarch butterflies has declined by about 90 percent over the past 20 years. This loss of important pollinators is due in part to human-caused phenomena like climate change, habitat destruction, and pesticide use. After the early-summer National Pollinator Week highlighted efforts to support pollinating species, monarch conservation efforts continue to be important during the butterflies’ summer breeding and fall migration seasons.
The migration and breeding pathway millions of monarchs fly through twice a year is known as the Monarch Highway, and it’s made up of the six central U.S. states, from Minnesota to Texas, that have agreed to increase conservation and outreach efforts. Large portions of the Midwest, including the northern states on this route, were classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) in 2015 as high-priority regions for conservation efforts. Missouri lies squarely in the middle of the Monarch Highway, and its north and central regions are within the FWS’s highest-priority areas. Last fall, the Missourians for Monarchs Collaborative, a statewide group that includes cities, conservation organizations, individuals, and corporations, pledged to create and maintain 19,000 acres of new pollinator habitat in Missouri every year until 2036.
As the community conservationist for the city of Columbia in mid-Missouri, Danielle Fox coordinates the city’s efforts to restore and preserve monarch habitat, including managing the city’s involvement in national monarch protection programs. Food Tank spoke with Fox to learn more about the importance of monarch butterflies and how we can help save them.
Food Tank (FT): What projects are you currently working with relating to monarchs? What conservation efforts are being taken at this point, either here in Columbia or nationally, to support habitat, migration, or survival?
Danielle Fox (DF): First, we have the Mayors’ Monarchs Pledge that the City of Columbia signed in October. [When] you sign the pledge, you agree to a certain number of action items that the National Wildlife Federation has listed. You can find all that on their website. The three action items that we have agreed to are to plant a monarch butterfly garden at City Hall, to increase our invasive species management operations, and to also help to do more education and outreach with nearby schools in Columbia. The first two things we have completed. The third, working with the schools, is something we are embarking on very soon.
We also have a grant from the 3M Corporation for a monarch butterfly habitat restoration project, so we have about US$25,000 to restore habitat for monarchs and other pollinating species at several different sites across the city.
In addition to the Mayors’ Monarchs [Pledge], we joined the Missourians for Monarchs Collaborative in October. That is a collaborative of different organizations, ranging from individual citizens all the way to corporations like Monsanto, cities, and various organizations of different sizes and capacities. It’s a collaborative of these groups working together to help conserve the monarch butterfly.
One of our bigger projects is our median and roundabout pollinator projects, so we’re working with our public works department and our office of sustainability, which I’m affiliated with. Here in Columbia, we have roundabouts that are very large, half an acre or more in size. It’s a lot of turf grass that needs to be mowed. As a way to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions as well as for us to save money and staff time—and to create some habitat—we are now in the process of converting those areas over to native planting. The one roundabout that we were able to complete this spring has milkweed and aster and liatris, or blazing star, and different native plants that support pollinating species and also add an aesthetic value to the community.
FT: How did we get to where we are today, with monarch populations decreasing?
DF: The ecological reason is that we’ve seen severe declines in their population numbers. Specifically looking at the monarch butterfly, their populations have declined from their original population by around 90 percent. One of the biggest concerns is habitat loss, and a lot of that comes from urbanization and modern agricultural practices. With roads and all these different structures, we’re breaking up the habitat, we’re depleting the habitat. We completely alter everything whenever we develop an area. By removing all of the vegetation and then scraping off the topsoil, which contains all the rich organic matter and the seed bank of all those plants that had existed in that area for thousands of years, we just basically wipe it all away and smooth it out and build on it.
And through our landscaping, we have introduced many plants that are from Asia or Africa that are not even native to North America, let alone Missouri. Those plants don’t have any natural competition—there are no insects here that recognize them as food—so they don’t eat them. These plants are just able to take over, which is why we chose improving our invasive species management operations as one of our pledge action items, because it’s so important for conserving habitat.
FT: Why is it important to support monarchs and other pollinators?
DF: The most direct reason is that they pollinate our food. Without them, we really are in bad shape. Lots of people don’t really think about it, but all of our crops that we eat, and all of the crops that our livestock eat, are all supported by pollinators.
FT: Even though the official National Pollinator Week is over, what are some things individuals can do to help monarchs on a regular basis?
DF: Plant native plants. Monarchs specifically rely upon milkweed as their host plant. Their caterpillar is a food specialist, a picky eater, so it only eats milkweed. The females, when they come to lay their eggs, they seek out the milkweed plant. If you want to help create more monarch butterflies, grow milkweed in your backyard. I live in an apartment, and I grow milkweed in a container on my back porch. So anywhere, any way, you can contribute in some way.