Skip to Content

New Horizons for Monarchs and Agriculture

Sep 06, 2016


  • Conservation Stories
  • Population Trends

Habitat loss in the agricultural Midwest is a major reason for the striking decline in the eastern monarch butterfly population. However, current projects and new research show opportunities for agricultural producers to restore habitat for monarchs and pollinators.

Farms, Prairie and Monarchs
The removal of monarch and pollinator habitat from the Midwestern Corn Belt results from both the historical conversion of native prairie and semi-natural habitat to cropland or developed areas, and the implementation of herbicide tolerant agricultural crops as a weed control mechanism. The systematic removal of prairie from the landscape has reduced not only habitat for monarchs but also for other wildlife and pollinators, and adversely affected water and soil quality.

Milkweed loss in the agricultural landscape is particularly important; most of the monarchs overwintering in Mexico come from the Corn Belt region (Wassenar and Hobson, 1998) with the majority of those monarchs being produced within row crop fields (Oberhauser et al. 2001), at least until the widespread adoption of herbicide tolerant crops that eliminated milkweed from those fields.  

Other important factors such as pesticide use, invasive species, climate change and extreme weather events, parasites and predators, and additional anthropogenic concerns have also contributed to the vast decline in the eastern monarch population.

Farmers Taking Action
With increased awareness and knowledge about these issues, farmers are working with conservation groups to strategically bring back native prairie habitats in areas where they were once abundant. MJV partners are actively engaging agricultural landowners through a variety of projects.

  • The Natural Resources Conservation Service launched their Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project in November 2015, investing $4 million in 2016 to aid monarch conservation through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Other programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), can also be used to improve monarch habitat in agricultural areas. In the state of Iowa, where very little of the state is publicly owned, farmers have “about 1.6 million acres enrolled in the federal conservation reserve” and added “about 217,000 acres in total conservation reserve land this year” to reverse enrollment declines beginning in 2007 (Des Moines Register).
  • The Xerces Society, Tallgrass Prairie Center, and University of Minnesota Monarch Lab worked with conventional and organic farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa to install pollinator “demonstration sites”. These landowners will continue to use their sites to inspire their neighbors by demonstrating how pollinator conservation is an accessible, successful and beneficial activity.
  • The Sand County Foundation is engaging a younger generation of FFA students to participate in monarch conservation “Supervised Agricultural Experiences”. Chapters will work to establish or improve habitat in agricultural areas and will engage conservation professionals, farmers, and other landowners in monitoring and outreach activities.
  • Many partners, including the Xerces Society, Pheasants Forever, and state and federal agencies have staff dedicated to working directly with private landowners on conservation issues. These technical service providers are essential to ensuring quality habitat installation and management is conducted.
  • The Environmental Defense Fund is working to establish a Monarch Habitat Exchange, based on their successful Exchange model for other species, like sage grouse. Working with monarch researchers and other partners, they have established a method for evaluating habitat and are aiming to launch this market-based incentives program in 2017. 
  • Many MJV partners participated in a symposium for “Agriculture and Monarchs: Communication of Challenges and Successes” at the 2016 North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Madison, Wisconsin. Conservation partners from across the Midwest came together to deliver this symposium which included presentations and panel discussions that explored how conservation biologists are engaging farmers and ranchers in habitat conservation within the “agricultural matrix”,  agricultural land between natural habitat fragments.

Future Opportunities and Threats
Current pollinator management approaches primarily deal with mitigating past impacts, such as restoring prairie habitat that was once lost to development and cropping. A new study presents opportunities for “pre-emptive practice, legislation and policy to sustainably manage pollinators for future generations” to address issues that are currently not receiving public attention or much activity (Brown et al. 2016). The highest ranked issue needing consideration in a changing world for pollinators was “corporate control of agriculture at the global scale” (Brown et al. 2016).

From a threats perspective, a small number of companies currently have unprecedented influence over land use and agricultural practices. Operating at such a large scale tends to promote homogenous production: a monoculture system of agriculture that is already rapidly altering landscapes and could “substantially reduce the diversity and abundance of native pollinators” (Brown et al. 2016).

However, if large scale control of agriculture is applied with the appropriate management practices it could allow sustainable pollinator management. Producers could achieve bottom-line benefits like pollination and other ecosystem services, and respond to consumer demand for pollinator-dependent crops and for habitat, both of which are driven by rising awareness of the importance and recent decline of pollinators.

Brown et al. identified six new upcoming issues as high priority threats or opportunities for pollinators:

  1. “corporate control of agriculture at the global scale”
  2. “sulfoximine, a novel systemic class of insecticides”
  3. “new emerging RNA viruses”
  4. “increased diversity of managed pollinator species”
  5. “effects of extreme weather events under climate change”
  6. “positive effects of reduced chemical use on pollinators in non-agricultural settings”

To read the entire paper and learn more about each issue identified, visit this page.

What Can Be Done Now
North American monarchs, and pollinators across the globe, are facing both unprecedented threats and exciting prospects of more conservation attention than they have ever previously received. In a world with an increasing demand for pollination at the same time threats are on the rise, it is urgent that we “future-proof” pollinators by addressing both current issues and those on the horizon (Brown et al. 2016). We can help ensure the continuation of the monarch migration and pollinators of all types by taking a proactive approach to conservation threats and taking advantage of opportunities like engaging farmers and agricultural producers in habitat creation and monitoring. Everyone can take part by continuing to create monarch habitat, educate others about their plight and monitoring the population to assess conservation needs. As Laura Jackson, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center said in a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, “Every little bit helps. Everyone who plants milkweed in their yards or farms should feel good about that”.


References and More Reading

Brown MJF, Dicks LV, Paxton RJ, Baldock KCR, Barron AB, Chauzat M, Freitas BM, Goulson D, Jepsen S, Kremen C, Li J, Neumann P, Pattemore DE, Potts SG, Schweiger O, Seymour CL, Stout JC. (2016) A horizon scan of future threats and opportunities for pollinators and pollination. PeerJ 4:e2249

Des Moines Register. (August 3, 2016) Turning Iowa farmland into butterfly, bee habitat. Donnelle Eller.

Monarch Joint Venture (December 21, 2015) Monarch Habitat on Farms in the Agricultural Midwest: An update from the field.  

Monarch Joint Venture (2016) Threats: Monarchs at Risk

Oberhauser KS, Prysby MD, Mattila HR, Stanley-Horn DE, Sears MK, Dively G, Olson E, Pleasants JM, Lam Wai-Ki F, Hellmich RL.  (2001) Temporal and Spatial Overlap between Monarch Larvae and Corn Pollen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98.21: 11913-1918.

Washington Post. (August 7, 2016) Iowa farmers ripped out prairie; now some hope it can save them. Darrly Fears.

Wassenaar LI, Hobson KA. (1998) Natal origins of migratory monarch butterflies at wintering colonies in Mexico: New isotopic evidence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95: 15436-15439.


The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, 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 by Candy Sarikonda.