Selected tag(s): milkweed

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 »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat Exchange, Partnerships| Also tagged , , , , , | Read 1 Response

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 »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange| Also tagged , , , , , , , , | Read 3 Responses

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 »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange| Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Read 1 Response

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 »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange, Sustainable Agriculture| Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

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 »

Posted in Ecosystems, Food, Habitat, Habitat Exchange, Sustainable Agriculture| Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read 10 Responses

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.

Read More »

Posted in Habitat Exchange| Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

Monarchs still need milkweed, and farmers are growing it

Rain builds over a field near Lubbock, Texas. Photo credit: Flickr user Craig O'Neal

Rain builds over a field near Lubbock, Texas. Photo credit: Flickr user Craig O'Neal

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. Read More »

Posted in Climate, Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange, Partnerships| Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read 2 Responses

Butterfly numbers may be up, but they still need our help

Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that the monarch butterfly, along with the manatee, is on a “big rebound.” It’s true that the iconic North American butterfly is in better shape today than this time last year. But it's too soon to celebrate.

A sensitive species

populationThe population of monarch butterflies has historically had drastic dips and spikes. That’s because the monarch is a sensitive species greatly impacted by extreme weather events.

In January 2002, the species experienced unprecedented and catastrophic mortality due to a rare freeze at its overwintering site in Mexico, killing an estimated 500 million butterflies. That’s more than two times the size of today’s population, even with this year’s boost.

Fortunately, the monarch is as resilient as it is delicate. This year’s bump in number proves that. It also shows that recovery is possible, that conservation efforts can make a difference. Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange| Also tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

From California to Idaho: Protecting rural pit stops on the monarch butterfly's great migration

The eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinter in the forests of central Mexico, with the most prominent migration path following Interstate 35 from Amarillo Texas to Duluth Minnesota. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The eastern population of monarch butterflies overwinters in the forests of central Mexico, with the most prominent migration path following Interstate 35 from Amarillo Texas to Duluth Minnesota. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

As a kid growing up in northern California, I found myself migrating to the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz (along with tens of thousands of other land-locked youth) to escape the sweltering inland heat each summer.

Now, as an adult more than a decade into my conservation career, I’ve come to learn that the monarch butterfly, one of America’s most well-known and beloved insects, is drawn to the same place, only during winter.

The western population of monarch butterflies spends their winters along the California coast, seeking the temperate climate and coastal forests the area offers. This overwintering habitat extends as far North as the San Francisco Bay Area and as far South as San Diego along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the highest concentrations occur in a handful of sites in and around Santa Cruz.

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to my old summer stomping grounds to see this iconic North American butterfly.

First stop: Natural Bridges State Park Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange| Also tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed
  • About this Blog

    Meeting growing demands for food and water in ways that allow people and nature to prosper.

    Follow @growingreturns

  • Get new posts by email

    We'll deliver new blog posts to your inbox.

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Browse by category