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Agricultural News

Op-Ed: Monarchs Still Need Milkweed and Farmers Are Growing It

Wed, 04 May 2016 22:13:21 CDT

Op-Ed: Monarchs Still Need Milkweed and Farmers Are Growing It In light of recent media reports suggesting that loss of milkweed habitat is no longer the chief threat to the dwindling monarch butterfly population, David Wolfe, director of conservation strategies at Environmental Defense Fund, wrote a blog about why milkweed is still of critical importance to monarch recovery efforts. He also discusses how a new program is in the works to enroll farmers and ranchers in restoring this vital habitat across America's Corn Belt. Read his blog entry below.

I am watching the rain pour down outside my window as I write this blog. El Niño is once again giving central and north Texas a good drenching, which has brought with it some severe and deadly flood conditions. But the rains are a welcome sight to Texas farmers and ranchers who have become all too used to drought and wildfire conditions. And they aren’t the only ones benefitting from the heavy rains.

All this wet weather has resulted in a spectacular display of spring wildflowers, including vast expanses of milkweed and nectar plants that the iconic North American monarch butterflies need to survive and thrive.

Recent headlines suggest that milkweed loss is just one of several threats to monarch populations, with drought, habitat fragmentation and reduced availability of nectar plants also influencing the species’ decline. In reality, all of these threats are interconnected in a recipe that could spell disaster for the monarch.

Changing the trajectory

Whether it’s drought, herbicides or fragmentation that’s causing the loss of vital monarch habitat, it’s clear that the only way we can change the trajectory for the monarch is to ensure that larger swaths of habitat and important nectar sources are protected. So how do we do this?

The Journey North website shows that the eastern population of monarchs is currently making its way northward through Texas and Oklahoma. Photo credit: Journey North
There are a number of coordinated efforts in the works by conservation groups, state and federal agencies, and regular citizens to build a Monarch Highway – a 1,500 mile stretch of habitat from Texas to Minnesota that would connect key habitat corridors to allow the monarchs a safe migration north for the summer and south to Mexico for the winter.

But do you know what lies in the middle of that 1,500 mile stretch? The Corn Belt – home to the most intense agricultural production in the country.

We can’t expect to build a Monarch Highway without engaging farmers, and that will be the focus of my work at EDF for the next several years.

Field testing on farms

To help guarantee the monarch’s recovery, EDF is developing a Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, which is designed to inspire vast numbers of farmers and ranchers to restore breeding and nectaring habitats on their property – namely on field edges, buffer areas and marginal lands that are well suited to this purpose.

In order for this to make financial sense for producers, the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange uses a habitat quantification tool to assign credit values to the restored habitat, which can then be sold to investors – private companies or other conservation buyers – giving landowners a new revenue stream.

I have been working with experts at Environmental Incentives and the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab for the past five months to develop this quantification tool, which is now ready for field testing.

First stop: Texas

Our first stop will be at Shield Ranch in central Texas. This nearly 5,000-acre ranch, which is located in western Travis County (home of Austin, Texas), has an active cattle operation, but is also home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. We expect that the property’s current wildlife-friendly grazing practices will be highly conducive to generating conservation credits for the monarch butterfly.

Our team of expert scientists will be at Shield Ranch on May 10 for the first field test of the monarch habitat quantification tool, which will provide essential insights on how the tool can be applied efficiently and effectively to grow monarch habitat.

We will continue gaining insights from other pilot testing along the monarch’s northern migration throughout the spring and summer – working with farmers and ranchers throughout the Corn Belt to gain even greater understanding of how the tool could support the launch of the Monarch Habitat Exchange next year. At that point, we hope to see hundreds of farmers and ranchers enrolling in the program and contributing to the monarch solution.

Source: Environmental Defense Fund



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