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Monarch Conservation Spotlight: Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge

Sep 15, 2020


  • Monarch Conservation Spotlight

Monarch Conservation Spotlight: Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge

One thing that makes the iconic monarch butterfly an extraordinary insect is that their migration and population span a large geographical area and touch the lives of people across North America and beyond. To support their lifecycle they require different habitats, resources, and conservation practices across this expansive range. This creates opportunities for you and others to be a piece of this conservation puzzle and focus on improving a mixture of habitats for this imperiled insect. 

To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) and all of the diverse and critical work that goes into conserving pollinators, the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Task Force are launching a new “Monarch Conservation Spotlight” series. The series will highlight some of the impactful projects, programs and organizations working hard to address the declining trend across North American monarch populations and bring you information and resources about how you can get involved. Join us to learn more.



This month we interviewed Kassie Karssen, wildlife biologist at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about her monarch and pollinator conservation efforts.



How would you describe this effort in 2-3 sentences?

Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge is part of a system of public lands dedicated to preserving and restoring habitats for fish, wildlife and plants. We work with partners to increase pollinator plant diversity and pollinator species, like the monarch butterfly.


What aspect of the monarch conservation puzzle would you say your project/organization addresses and what makes it unique?

We restore monarch and pollinator habitat while researching and promoting best land management practices for our community. Our focus currently are removing invasives like fescue (turf grass) and encroaching woody plants along roads to open pockets of habitat. It’s amazing how many native species sprout back on their own, once given the chance. 


Many pollinators, including monarchs, don’t need a lot of space to live. The refuge has about 20 miles of roadways with milkweed bordering the refuge. We’ve supported and provided technical assistance to local groups and landowners who want to create monarch habitat. Since 2017, the pocket habitats supply us with locally sourced native milkweed seeds to harvest.


What are the primary goals/objectives of your project/organization? 

For Big Oaks, we are restoring the roadsides to be entirely composed of native plants. To do this we use multiple land management practices like fire and mowing. Many of our neighbors have commented on the project and learn the benefits of managing the land for pollinators. 


What successes have you achieved?

In August the refuge conducts a butterfly count which is open to the public and volunteers to help. 2019 was our 20th year, and while the number of species remains steady, the number of individuals was the 2nd highest count recorded. We counted more than 1,300 Eastern tiger swallowtails. Also, noticing other wildlife utilizing the restored pollinator habitat, like bobwhite quail and wild turkeys.


Several refuge staff served on the Jennings County Share Some Space program. Share Some Space began in 2015 as a multi-agency program to increase awareness of pollinator species declines and establish new pollinator habitats throughout four counties. The 11 partners helped to create more than 800 habitat projects on 2,500 acres with 7,700 native plants. We earned the 2016 Indiana District Showcase Award by the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the 2016 NRCS Indiana Earth Team Volunteer Award, the 2017 NRCS National Earth Team Partnership Award, and the 2019 Indiana Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence. This program is amazing and we are proud to be a part of it.


What is your biggest challenge?

There are always too many projects and not enough time and limited funding. We partner with other agencies and organizations, like Project Wingspan, which is administered through Pollinator Partnership. Project Wingspan provided us an outlet to gather groups of volunteers for fall seed collecting. Also, the National Wildlife Turkey Federation is critical in funding our efforts. They recently awarded us another grant to restore more roadsides to pollinator habitat. By collaborating with partners we’re able to leverage our resources and expand our conservation efforts. We cannot do it alone.


What is something about monarch conservation or your project/organization you wish more people knew?

In our area, Big Oaks is an unknown secret, people can access it to hike, hunt and fish. Getting the public to understand the importance of pollinator conservation and appreciate the aesthetics of natural “wild” habitat. Through education and outreach we are working to inform, increase awareness and hopefully relate it to them. Monarchs are a wonderful gateway species with its charisma, bright colors and easily recognizable. They are connecting people to conservation and demonstrating the value of ecosystems. 


Where can readers find more information about your project/organization?

Explore our website and visit the refuge to enjoy and learn about the outdoors. 


What is the best way to get involved in your conservation work?

In these trying times, I think taking on projects like creating your own pollinator garden can be very therapeutic. I have found great comfort in tending my garden, hanging bird feeders, and enjoying the creatures that have visited my home. 



Additionally, contact the refuge by email or call 812-273-0783. We welcome volunteers and interns to assist us in our conservation work. If you’d like to help us collect seed through Project Wingspan, you can complete the online training and get assigned to a team here.



Alone no individual or entity can address all monarch conservation needs, but through collaborative conservation we can and will make a difference for monarchs and more. Keep following our “Monarchs Conservation Spotlight” series to hear more inspiring monarch conservation stories. 

Do you know a great project or organization that is addressing critical monarch conservation topics and deserve their moment under the spotlight? Let us know!

Article contributed by Mara Koenig, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Taskforce. The Monarch Joint Venture is 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. Header photo and article photos provided by Kassie Karssen (USFWS).