Iowa RECs: How Iowans are helping monarchs

September 5, 2018
News

by Erin Campbell
Director of Communications, Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives

As you spend time outdoors in the warmer months, you may have noticed fewer monarch butterflies over the years. Unfortunately, the monarch butterfly population has experienced an 80 percent decline in the past 20 years due in part to the loss of milkweed habitat – which is the only food source for the monarch caterpillar.

Milkweed plants are also used exclusively by female monarchs for laying eggs, so the plant is critical to the species’ survival. Geographically, Iowa is in the center of the monarch’s summer breeding range, and approximately 40 percent of all monarch butterflies that overwinter in Mexico are estimated to come from Iowa and neighboring Midwestern states. For monarchs to survive and thrive, it’s essential for Iowans to help establish milkweed habitats.

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium – a partnership of farmer and conservation groups, state agencies, companies and Iowa State University – has set a goal of 830,000 acres to be devoted to monarch butterfly habitat in the state by 2038.

“The consortium has worked collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan to expand habitat on our agricultural land, urban areas, roadsides and other public land. We appreciate the many partners that have been involved and are encouraged by the work already underway,” said Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. 

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy – developed by the consortium members – guides the implementation and documentation of a voluntary, statewide conservation effort based on the best available science. The consortium is a group of 40 organizations, including agricultural and conservation associations, agribusiness and utility companies, universities and county, state and federal agencies. Iowa’s electric cooperatives are members of the consortium through their affiliation with the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.

“Research has shown that an all-hands-on-deck approach is necessary for successful monarch conservation. That’s why Iowa agriculture must play a central role as part of a science-based solution,” said Joe Colletti, interim endowed dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. “The consortium continues to emphasize development of practical, scientifically proven strategies for increasing monarch habitat in combination with crop and livestock production in Iowa and the Upper Midwest.” 

Several of Iowa’s electric cooperatives are looking at ways to establish pollinator and monarch habitat on their properties and rights of way. For example: 

Allamakee-Clayton Electric Cooperative has a walking trail at its headquarters, which is surrounded by native prairie grasses and flowers, including milkweed which is essential to the monarch habitat. 

Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative is pursuing a project to grow the monarch habitat at its headquarters in Estherville; the habitat will be located in and around the co-op’s solar array.

Farmers Electric Cooperative in Greenfield recently voted to dedicate 5-7 acres around the Greenfield office to monarch habitat. The co-op will prepare the ground this fall and plant in early spring 2019. 

A great example of how Iowans are working to improve monarch habitat can be found in Harrison County, where we talked with Scott Nelson, director of the Harrison County Conservation Board. Scott says the board is actively working to convert mowed grass areas within their jurisdiction to pollinator habitat. 

“It really is a win-win situation; when we convert areas to pollinator and monarch habitat, it’s maintenance-free once it’s established and it provides a valuable food source for monarchs, bees and other native animals.” 

The Harrison County Conservation Board manages more than 1,800 acres throughout the county, which is served by Harrison County Rural Electric Cooperative. Just a few miles west of the electric co-op office at the Willow Lake Recreation Area, the conservation board actively manages more than 35 acres of pollinator and monarch habitat, with plans to add even more habitat along the walking trails and cabins, which are available to the public for rental.

Thad Pothast, natural resource technician with the Harrison County Conservation Board, is passionate about bringing native prairie and plants back to Iowa. 

“Iowa was once covered by 75 percent prairie, but today, remnant prairie only makes up one-tenth of one percent of the state’s landscape,” Pothast says. He notes that patience is required when establishing pollinator habitat.

“The first two years, your plot may look like a weed garden, but you’ll start to see wildflowers, taller grasses and more variety by year three,” he says. “I often take calls from county residents who want to establish monarch habitat on their private land.”

To learn more about establishing monarch habitat in your area, Pothast recommends contacting your local county conservation board. You can find contact information for your county at www.mycountyparks.com

For more information on the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium and ways you can help, visit monarch.ent.iastate.edu

This article is featured in the Sept. 2018 issue of "Living with Energy in Iowa" magazine.