Growing Returns

Monarch butterflies are migrating in large numbers, with support from some unlikely allies

Monarch butterflies fueled on recently planted prairie habitat on hog farms in Missouri this summer before beginning their annual fall migration south.

You may have noticed more monarch butterflies than usual this year. There’s a reason for that.

Researchers are finding that monarch populations are at the fourth highest level since 1993 – making this year’s population currently migrating south for the winter one of the highest of the past 25 years.

That’s great news for the beloved orange and black butterfly, which has faced a 95 percent population decline since the 1980s. This dramatic loss has been driven largely by increased applications of herbicides across the agricultural landscape, and additional threats posed by extreme weather and climate change.

But citizens, conservationists and even some forward-thinking companies are highly motivated to help recover the monarch before it’s too late.

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Unlikely allies are crowdsourcing funding and habitat to save the monarch butterfly

The monarch butterfly has a new chance at recovery, thanks to the launch of the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange and inspiring commitments from early participants.

The Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange is an innovative market-based program dedicated to restoring and conserving high-quality monarch habitat on America’s private working lands. It’s been dubbed an ‘Airbnb for butterflies’ because it’s the only program of its kind that can open the vast untapped potential of large-scale farms and ranches to make habitat available for monarchs at an unprecedented scale and pace.

Studies estimate that the monarch’s population has declined by 95 percent since the 1980s, and the butterfly faces a June 2019 deadline for an Endangered Species Act listing decision.

To change the monarch’s trajectory and avoid the need for restrictive regulations that often accompany a listing, we need to restore millions of acres of native milkweed and wildflowers across the butterfly’s vast migration route, fast.

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Why I have more hope than ever for the monarch’s recovery

A monarch butterfly nectars on an eryngo plant at Wagley Ranch on October 11. Read more about the monarch and explore David’s notes from the field here.

I recently returned to Wagley Ranch near Mineral Wells, Texas to work with some of the very first landowners participating in the emerging Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange.

The visit was the last on my fall field testing tour of the state, during which I visited five Texas ranchers in just six weeks. It was great to end on a high note at Wagley Ranch, where we had the chance to see southward migrating monarchs. We even saw one monarch feeding on an eryngo plant.

It was a wonderful reminder of why our work with these ranchers is so important, because the habitat they are restoring and enhancing is providing a new home to monarchs. Each acre of healthy habitat restored will support 70 butterflies on their migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

So how do we bring these activities to scale in time to save the monarch from extinction? With the right tools, the right practices, and the right people. Read More »

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How the Midwest can save the monarch

Monarch lands on a milkweed in the Midwest

Monarch populations have declined by 90 percent in the past two decades due, in large part, to the loss of milkweed across the Midwest.

Once again, summer has brought the highly anticipated sightings of monarch butterflies across the country. An online tracker from Journey North shows the beloved orange and black butterflies fanning across the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where the eastern population is completing its northern migration. I spotted a monarch in Missouri just last week.

It’s a wonderful sight and an inspiring reminder of the monarch’s magical migration. But the opportunity to witness this natural miracle is dwindling. Over the last two decades, the monarch population has declined by 90 percent, bringing the butterfly dangerously close to extinction.

There are many factors contributing to this devastating loss, from climate change to deforestation. But a major contributor is the loss of milkweed habitat across the U.S., particularly in the Midwest where native prairies have largely been converted for agricultural use. Monarchs need milkweed to lay their eggs – eggs that turn into caterpillars that feed exclusively on the milky plants. So how do we restore this vital milkweed habitat where monarchs need it the most? Read More »

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How food companies can turn the pollinator emergency into a big opportunity

The rusty patched bumblebee was listed as an endangered species in early 2017

The rusty patched bumblebee was listed as an endangered species in early 2017. [Photo credit]

Bees, beetles and butterflies are in big trouble.

Pollinators all over the world are experiencing dramatic declines in populations, with about 40 percent of all invertebrate pollinator species facing a very real threat of extinction. Just last October, several species of bees were added to the U.S. Endangered Species List for the first time. Monarch butterfly populations also face the potential threat of a future listing, with populations down by more than 90 percent in recent decades.

These stats are concerning because pollinator health is a strong indicator of an ecosystem’s overall health. Pollinator decline directly correlates with habitat loss, decreased plant diversity, and increased disease in the ecosystem.

This problem cannot be solved by any one sector. Restoration of pollinator habitats will require significant investment and collaboration between both public and private sectors – especially businesses with bottom lines directly tied to pollinator success. Read More »

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Ranchlands: An untapped reservoir of monarch butterfly habitat

The monarch migration path through central Texas is often referred to as the "Texas Funnel." Source: Journey North

The monarch migration path through central Texas is often referred to as the “Texas Funnel.” Source: Journey North

As monarch butterflies have returned to Texas on their fall migration south, so have my colleagues and I to Shield Ranch for another round of field testing for the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, a new conservation program we expect to launch in key states in 2017.

Texas offers a lot of potential habitat for monarchs, being a critical layover on the species’ annual migrations north and south, and having a number of landowners willing and eager to find a solution for the iconic butterfly’s decline.

During our visit to Shield Ranch, we saw dozens of monarchs and other butterflies, as an unusually high amount of rain in August sparked a profusion of fall wildflowers in central Texas. With targeted conservation funding through the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, we can make rapid progress on the ground. Read More »

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As winter approaches, monarch caterpillars fuel up on a Minnesota farm

Kristin Duncanson shows me monarch caterpillar we found on her farm. “Everyone has a monarch story," she said.

Kristin Duncanson holds a monarch caterpillar we found on her farm. “Everyone has a monarch story,” she said.

Duncanson Growers is a family farm located in the heart of southern Minnesota. Owners Kristin and Pat Duncanson produce pork and grow corn, soybeans and vegetable peas on the farm, with a commitment to sustainable practices that improve the quality of their land. But it’s not just about environmental sustainability.

“We also need to maintain and increase our productivity to be economically sustainable,” Kristin said.

The Duncanson family has been committed to sustainability not only through their own farming operations, but also through outreach and education efforts. I recently paid a visit to the family’s farm, where just the night before they had hosted 30 college students for dinner, recognizing the importance of communicating their sustainability practices to others.

In addition to their current practices, which include improving data collection to increase fertilizer efficiency, reducing tillage where possible and rotating crops, the Duncansons have also maintained some very high quality habitat for monarch caterpillars and butterflies. Read More »

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What would it take for a Nebraska corn farmer to grow milkweed for monarch butterflies?

EDF is working to develop the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange to engage the agricultural community in the fight against extinction.

EDF is working to develop the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange to engage the agricultural community in the fight against extinction.

Virtually every farmer and rancher in America has room for conservation on their land. But deciding whether or not to enroll acres in a conservation program requires just as much business sense as deciding which crops to grow on other acres. It’s a matter of cost and return on investment.

My team and I traveled to Nebraska earlier this month to meet with a few corn and soybean farmers to get a sense of what the costs and benefits might be of dedicating some acres – namely marginal lands with low crop productivity, as well as roadsides and field edges – to growing milkweed habitat for the monarch butterfly. What we found was that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Read More »

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Why two California farms give me hope for the monarch butterfly

A monarch caterpillar eats showy milkweed at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California.

A monarch caterpillar eats showy milkweed at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California.

The western population of monarch butterflies is in steep decline, according to a recent study released by the Xerces Society, having fallen 74 percent in the past two decades, from roughly 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 300,000 butterflies in 2015.

Studies have documented the drop in eastern populations over the past several years, but this is the first time we’ve been able to understand the risks to the western population, which resides west of the Rocky Mountains.

The population is struggling because of development around the forested groves where they spend winters along the California coast and in Mexico, and because of pesticide applications that kill vital milkweed habitat. These threats and the population decline are significant, having the potential to influence a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision in coming years if the situation fails to turn around soon.

I’ve feared for many years that the monarch might reach the point that it will require protections under the Endangered Species Act – a last resort that signals a dire state for the iconic and beloved species. But a recent trip to California gave me great hope that it’s not too late to change the monarch’s trajectory.  Read More »

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Monarch butterflies get help from Texas ranch

A monarch caterpillar eats antelope horn milkweed! growing at Shield Ranch.

A monarch caterpillar eats antelope horn milkweed growing at Shield Ranch.

A few weeks ago, I visited Shield Ranch, a 6,000-acre property devoted to responsible cattle management and wildlife conservation. I made the visit to the ranch – less than 20 miles west of my home in Austin – to test a new tool being designed to more accurately assess habitat for the monarch butterfly.

Standing in a field of wildflowers with a team of scientists, we used the monarch butterfly habitat quantification tool to measure vegetation and determine what monarch habitat was available on the property. We’ve used similar habitat quantification tools for other at-risk wildlife like the lesser prairie-chicken and greater sage-grouse, but this was the first time we tested a tool for monarch butterfly habitat.

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