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2021 Summer Review: Pieces of the Conservation Puzzle

Oct 08, 2021


  • Conservation Stories

It’s been a challenging field season in more ways than one, but scientists, field technicians, and volunteers have worked hard for monarch conservation in 2021. Weather extremes, wildfires, droughts, and of course a global pandemic were just a few of the factors affecting our world in the last few months.

In monarch conservation, “All Hands on Deck” is the prevailing method of combining efforts across land types and uses to create a healthier ecosystem overall. This approach requires participation from five different sectors: protected grasslands, agricultural conservation lands (like Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)), urban and suburban (or municipal) areas, transportation and energy rights-of-way, and agriculture. Combined, scientists believe these sectors can provide enough habitat and resources to slow the decline of the monarch butterfly population, and restore it to its former numbers.

Hundreds of people joined together with Monarch Joint Venture in 2021 to research and create better habitat corridors for monarchs and thousands of other organisms, including humans. Below is an overview of some of the ways that the Monarch Joint Venture and its partners answered the call of “All Hands on Deck” this summer.


Butterflies and Solar Fields

Conservation Sector: Transportation and Energy
        Photo by Monarch Joint Venture / Laura Lukens

The energy sector has some of the biggest impacts on the global ecosystem. As industries explore new ways to meet energy needs in a more sustainable way, it makes sense to pay close attention to how energy infrastructure can work hand-in-hand with wildlife conservation.

National Monitoring Coordinator Laura Lukens worked with four Minnesota solar installations this summer. In many cases, the ground area below a solar field is covered with gravel, bare ground, or turfgrass, but these particular sites were planted with a diverse array of native wildflower species instead. The MJV visited each site several times over the course of the summer to investigate the impacts of solar array canopies on plant and pollinator communities. 

At each site, we quantified the richness and abundance of blooming plants, milkweed, and pollinators (including monarch eggs and caterpillars). The data collected below each array was accompanied by similar information from a full-sun area nearby to identify potential impacts of shading on plant and pollinator communities. We will share the results of this work after review of the data, and have hopes to expand the project in future years to continue studying how the solar industry might best support native plants and insects.


Monarchs on the Roadside

Conservation Sector: Transportation and Energy
        Photo by Monarch Joint Venture / Samantha Shimota

Energy and transportation corridors present an important and unique opportunity for restoring monarch habitat. These spaces span hundreds of thousands of acres across the continent, are connectors of fragmented habitat patches, and are already being managed by energy and transportation authorities. They are especially suited to support monarch butterflies, as milkweed thrives in disturbed areas like roadsides.

A team of field technicians spent the summer investigating how much monarch habitat is present along U.S. highways in Minnesota. The goal of the project, in partnership with the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, was to learn more about the milkweed and flowering resources available to monarchs in roadsides, and to use that data to improve the Landscape Prioritization Model (a tool that helps managers understand existing habitat quality and prioritize areas for conservation management and restoration). This project will also help the Minnesota Department of Transportation in deciding where to implement habitat conservation measures, including enrolling sites in the Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for the Monarch Butterfly

Field technicians visited more than one hundred sites across the state and used a 15-minute Rapid Assessment survey to assess the quality of roadside habitat. “We have so much available land in these areas, why not make sure we’re managing them as best we can for the benefit of our native plant and pollinator communities?” said Laura Lukens, National Monitoring Coordinator.


Caterpillar Resources on Restoration Lands

Conservation Sector: Protected Grasslands,CRP, Agriculture
       Photo by Monarch Joint Venture / Lindsay Wourms

The conversion of native grassland to industrial agriculture was a huge setback for hundreds of North American species, monarchs included. Turning some of these agricultural spaces back into native prairie is one of the most important steps in supporting a healthy population of monarchs.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has partnered with the Monarch Joint Venture for a third year of Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program surveys on private and public lands across multiple states. These restoration sites have received funding from the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinators Conservation Fund to reestablish native species such as milkweed, coneflower, bergamot, and hundreds more.

Early this spring, a field crew visited sites in Texas, Kansas, and Missouri to expand our knowledge of habitat quality and milkweed distribution on restored lands in the southern U.S., where data have been limited historically. Two other teams visited concentrations of sites around the Twin Cities and Chicago for a total of 24 sites visited weekly to document monarch eggs and larvae on milkweed plants. Field technicians had to quickly familiarize themselves with an impressive diversity of plant species, both the native species that were seeded on the restoration lands, as well as the nonnative species that can invade newly established plantings. The crews were able to build their knowledge together, and also interact with the landowners and connect about conservation issues.


Monitoring Wisconsin Restoration Lands

Conservation Sector: Protected Grasslands
        Photo by Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin / Cait Williamson

Many hands make light work, so reaching out to new people and teaching them the skills to monitor monarch habitat is a critical part of All Hands on Deck. Science Coordinator Jennifer Thieme held two in-person training sessions for the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (NRF) this summer to teach community scientists to conduct monarch surveys on conservation lands using the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program (IMMP). The workshops were held in southwest Wisconsin at two sites that will be restored as part of a pollinator habitat restoration grant awarded to NRF by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Jennifer also held a virtual workshop for those who could not attend in person. Altogether, 14 people were trained on how to conduct the survey, with six state conservation properties now being monitored by these individuals. This year’s data reflect baseline conditions before restoration occurs, which is rarely obtained. Next year, NRF and MJV will coordinate with volunteers again to monitor the same sites and evaluate how their pollinator habitat and use by monarchs changes with management.


Wildlife Habitat on Restored Mississippi River Farmland

Conservation Sector: Protected Grasslands
        Photo by Monarch Joint Venture / Kiley Friedrich

Midwest Habitat Coordinator Kiley Friedrich spent the summer working with the Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR), a nonprofit that protects, restores and enhances the Mississippi River, to monitor pollinator habitat at a restored site in Elk River, Minnesota. The Mississippi River is one of the largest watersheds in North America, and plays a direct role in the health of a much wider ecosystem. The MJV has been working with FMR to monitor insects at the William H. Houlton Conservation Area. This area is in the multi-year process of converting 160 acres of farmland into native prairie and savanna.

This area is accessible to the public, and includes prairie, forest, and river systems. The site has been monitored for many years, and this summer’s work adds to the growing body of knowledge about how prairie restoration can benefit pollinators and other wildlife. 

“There’s so much wildlife there it’s unbelievable,” Kiley said. “I’ve seen deer, raptors, beavers, snakes, herons, and a woodchuck. It’s been really cool to help build their data set for that site.”


Milkweed, Nectar Plants, & Monarchs on California BLM Lands

Conservation Sector: Protected Grassland
        Photo by Monarch Joint Venture / Lindsay Wourms

The California landscape is vast, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns some of the most remote and ecologically important parts of the state. It involved hours of driving across rough terrain, but a tough crew of field technicians spent the 2021 field season visiting BLM lands to evaluate the potential for monarch habitat. The crew utilized the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program protocols to collect information about milkweed, flowering plants, and monarchs.

“We don’t really know how many milkweed plants are present across the landscape on California BLM land and where and how monarchs interact with those species,” said National Monitoring Coordinator Laura Lukens. “This project will help fill data gaps related to milkweed and nectar plant composition and use by monarchs in the West.”

The crew examined all milkweed plants they encountered for monarch eggs and larvae, but the rapidly declining western monarch population has made them difficult to find. The crew found just one monarch caterpillar during their entire 6-month season and only a handful of adults.  Though monarch sightings were scarce, the habitat data they gathered is an important step toward understanding how BLM lands might play a role in supporting monarch butterflies and other pollinator species.


Farmers for Monarchs

Conservation Sector: Agriculture
       Photo by Monarch Joint Venture / Kiley Friedrich

Monarch Joint Venture joined our partners, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, on a few field days where land management professionals, soil and water conservationists, and county and park managers can see the firsthand benefits of established pollinator habitat. Educators and habitat professionals, including MJV Midwest Habitat Coordinator Kiley Friedrich, invited these groups of professionals to converted managed sites as the jumping-off point to talk about the details of installing pollinator habitat.

As part of the Farmers for Monarchs outreach this summer, Kiley has had many conversations with farmers and learned how their farmland management has changed over the decades. She has talked with people who remember earning pocket change to hand-pull milkweed from crop fields, because many regarded it as an aggressive weed. That perspective is changing as land managers learn more about how native plants can function alongside traditional crops. 

These demonstrations allow managers to see not only how restored landscapes can benefit monarchs and other wildlife such as grassland birds, but gives them a blueprint for a healthier ecosystem in the spaces they manage. Those interested in learning more about landscape restoration on private working lands in the Midwest can call 833-MILKWEE or reach out to the Pollinator Habitat Help Desk for more technical assistance and resources.


Monarch Habitat on California Working Lands

Conservation Sector: Agriculture
        Photo Courtesy of Stan Chance

The West Coast is one of the most critical places for monarch conservation, which is why Monarch Joint Venture manages the California Working Lands Free Seed Program. California Habitat Coordinator Wynter Vaughan has worked with dozens of landowners and provided them with free narrowleaf milkweed plugs and native plant seeds to create monarch habitat. These projects represent a diverse array of working lands, including cattle ranches, dairies, vineyards, almond and vegetable farms, and even a small urban farm in Oakland.

Every planting is unique, and requires long-term commitment from the landowner, especially in areas where drought conditions are especially challenging.

“They know their land,” Wynter said. “We’re trying to figure this out together and support one another. We want to squash this stigma of farmers not caring about the planet. They have to do what’s right for their livelihood, but they’re learning there’s a transition. How their grandfather farmed is not how they might farm, and that’s ok. We’re understanding and learning from them.”


Teaching Science with Monarchs

Conservation Sector: Municipal
        Photo by Monarch Joint Venture

Education is one of the most important pieces of bringing many people together in the unified mission of monarch conservation. Education Coordinator Katie-Lyn Bunney spent summer 2021 holding a series of virtual professional development workshops to teach educators how to use monarch conservation as a tool for teaching science in the classroom.

“Monarchs are a great way to learn about life cycles and ecology, and observations of monarchs and their habitat can lead to scientific investigations in the schoolyard, immersing students in the process of science,” Katie-Lyn said.

This workshop series engages the municipal sector of monarch conservation. Even garden boxes in schoolyards of highly urban areas, planted with milkweed and nectar resources, can become dependable monarch habitat, said Katie-Lyn.

The series was taught virtually this year, and drew 24 participants from schools, zoos, nature centers, and museums across North America. Schools that participate in the program are eligible for funds to build an onsite pollinator garden.

“It’s a great opportunity to provide an example of what a good pollinator habitat can look like and demonstrate how important pollinators are to our food systems, as well as our wellbeing,” Katie-Lyn said.


Article written by Jackie Bussjaeger, MJV's Summer 2021 Assistant Program Manager. The Monarch Joint Venture is a 501c3 nonprofit organization and a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.