Author Archives: Audrey Archer

Once a pesky plant for farmers, this weed presents a new opportunity

Although milkweed contains toxins, it rarely poses any significant threat to people or animals. Grazing livestock generally avoid milkweeds when sufficient forage is available. (Photo credit: E. Dronkert)

A recent article called milkweed a “yield-robbing weed” for farmers.

Milkweed has a reputation for encroaching on cropland where it can compete with crops for soil and light. The plant can also create a nuisance on ranchlands, as cattle can be poisoned when poor foraging conditions lead hungry cows to milkweed-concentrated areas as a last resort.

This is why milkweed is difficult to find on most farms and ranches today. Along with climate change, it’s also a key reason why the beloved monarch butterfly population has declined by more than 90 percent in the last two decades.

The importance of milkweed

Milkweed is essential for monarchs, since butterflies need the plant to lay their eggs, and caterpillars exclusively feed on the milky sap-filled plant. It’s what makes monarchs poisonous to predators.

Increased herbicide application across the agricultural landscape, as well as mowing in roadside ditches and marginal areas, is eradicating milkweed from rural areas in the Corn Belt and other key regions of the monarch’s migration route.

In order to turn things around for the monarch, we need to change the incentive for landowners from spraying and mowing to protecting and restoring this vital habitat. Read More »

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From testing to launch: A new program for monarchs takes flight

Audrey applies the Habitat Quantification Tool to a potential restoration site, counting the number of milkweed and wildflower stems within a transect.

This spring, my colleagues and I visited three ranches in Texas to begin piloting the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, an emerging program that will help agricultural landowners contribute to monarch recovery.

Elm Ridge Ranch, Wagley Ranch and Shield Ranch will be among the first restoration projects conducted this year to improve ranchlands and create valuable monarch habitat. We will continue to work closely with these landowners to hone the program and ensure it works for monarchs, pollinators and people alike.

Already, we’ve had the opportunity to gain valuable insights, including how to improve habitat quantification and how to inspire enrollment.

Read More »

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To help the environment, we must first help people

Author Audrey Archer explores her natural surroundings and assesses need for conservation practices

Now living in Austin, Texas where diverse wildlands are numerous and easily accessible, Audrey takes any opportunity she can get to put on her hiking boots and explore her natural surroundings. She also volunteers with the City of Austin to give guided hikes on preserves. Credit: Rob Binder

I grew up in the high and dry panhandle plains of Texas, where trees are scarce, wind is always blowing, and the smell of feedlots lingers in the air. Needless to say, I was not overly inspired by my surroundings – at least not at the time I lived there.

Had I not traveled with my family growing up, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. Throughout these travels, I became enraptured by the biodiversity and lushness of other ecosystems and felt compelled to learn as much as I could about them.

But the stark contrast between some of the natural ecosystems and working landscapes I was exposed to led me to develop a pretty pessimistic view of humans’ impact on the environment. Surely, there had to be a better way of balancing human needs for things like food, water and shelter with nature’s needs.

Determined to tackle this problem, I got my Master’s in Environmental Management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and took a job at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where I had heard that scientists and economists were developing incentive programs for landowners to improve water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restore habitat for at-risk wildlife.

Little did I know my worldview was about to be turned upside down.

Putting people first Read More »

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Three threats to the monarch butterfly’s winter habitat and what we can do about it

Monarchs cluster on oyamel fir branches to stay warm. Tens of thousands of monarchs can cluster on a single tree.

Monarchs cluster on oyamel fir branches to stay warm. Tens of thousands of monarchs can cluster on a single tree. Photo credit: Pablo Leautaud (license)

Just as some people travel great distances to spend the holiday season with family and friends, monarch butterflies, too, make a long journey to spend the winter gathered together in the oyamel fir forests of Mexico.

The eastern population passes through Oklahoma and Texas on its annual migration south, stopping periodically to fuel up on nectar, ultimately reaching their destination in the mountains of central Mexico.

Unfortunately, the monarch’s winter home is under stress, which has contributed to a 90-percent decline in the species’ population over the last two decades. Read More »

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