The monarch butterfly is in trouble. Once a common site in our area – the middle of their migratory path to Mexico – its familiar black and orange wings are seen far less frequently these days.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates about 970 million monarchs have vanished since 1990. And now, the monarch looks to be headed for a listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
So why is this happening, and what is being done to save the species?
The plight of the monarch
Scientists say the sharp decline of the monarch coincides with the depletion of the milkweed plant. Once the scourge of bean fields, ditches and well-manicured lawns, widespread pesticide use has largely eradicated the plant. Also, much of the butterfly’s habitat has become farmland.
Nebraska has 17 species of milkweed, said Randall Gilbert, program director for Save Our Monarchs. The plant is essential to the monarch since it is where the butterflies lay their eggs and is the only food their caterpillars will eat.
The toxicity of the milkweed makes the butterfly unattractive to birds, which keeps them safe from being eaten, Gilbert said.
OPPD’s “Prairies in Progress”
So what is being done to help save the species?
In Nebraska and Iowa, monarch refuges are popping up, including at several Omaha Public Power District and Nebraska Public Power District locations.
In April and May, groups of volunteers from OPPD helped spread seed mix at a “Prairie in Progress” site being restored near the utility’s Nebraska City Station (NCS). At the OPPD Arboretum in the heart of Omaha, 2,000 pollinator plant plugs were also installed for a pollinator garden.
OPPD is also restoring parcels of land at the decommissioning Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station (FCS). Along with habitat being planted at NCS and the plugs at the OPPD Arboretum, others restorations are planned on OPPD-owned land near 142nd and State streets and an additional 70-acres of prairie land at FCS.
In all, OPPD plans on converting 260 acres into natural butterfly habitat, but will continue looking at other locations that could also be converted into prairie beyond what has already been identified.
The project is a joint effort between OPPD’s Environmental Affairs and Facilities Operation & Maintenance departments and the Save Our Monarchs Foundation.
Emily Muth, Environmental Affairs administrator at OPPD, said the transformation doesn’t happen overnight and requires a good amount of labor up front, but it is a sound, long-term management plan once the prairie is established.
“If we can do something more to reduce our costs and yet promote biodiversity within our landscapes, it is a win-win for everybody,” Muth said.
Gilbert said a mix of 70 different grasses and wildflowers were planted this spring, and within five years, there will be a good “structure” set up in those areas. Milkweed, golden rod and a few other plants are already popping up already this year, he said.
Gilbert has been working with OPPD officials to develop the prairie sites. The structure includes the right mix for ground-nesting birds, migratory birds, insects and pollinators.
In the first year, the plant’s root systems are built up below the ground and by the second and third year passersby will start seeing more plant diversity.
June 18 was National Pollinator Week, which is meant to draw attention to the issue and celebrate the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies like the monarch.
The arboretum’s pollinator garden also serves as a monarch “waystation” – a place monarchs can rest, recover and reproduce on their way to Mexico. There are thousands of these waystations across North America, Gilbert said.
For OPPD, one of the advantages of the project is a fiscal one. The prairies don’t require as much mowing, which saves money for ratepayers, said Jim Fitzsimmons, supervisor of Facilities Operations & Maintenance.
There are signs at the sites to let people know OPPD isn’t just letting the land go untended, but is doing so to let the native plants and grasses grow to create the habitat, he said.
The monarch in the Midwest
Bob Henrickson, horticulture program coordinator for the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, said eastern Nebraska now only has one-tenth of 1 percent of the prairie it once had. For him, places like the arboretum offer a glimpse, a “postage stamp,” of what our prairie once looked like. He said there are now more than 100 different pollinator friendly gardens like the one being developed at the OPPD Arboretum across the state.
“The monarch is kind of this canary in the coal mine,” Henrickson said. “It’s a pretty butterfly that everybody recognizes, so if they are in trouble, what else is in trouble that we don’t know about?
“So we want to shore up the biodiversity, because we are pretty mow-happy and want to mow everything down, which takes away a lot of the plants insects feed on.”
Those involved with the project are optimistic their work will help the monarch make a comeback like species such as the bald eagle and gray wolf. Hopefully, in the coming years, those beautiful black and orange wings will again be a common site everywhere.