Monarch Moonshot: Officials hope to make Linn County center of butterfly production and habitat

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MARION — The launchpad is prepared for a pair of projects aimed at making Linn County the epicenter of both monarch butterfly production and the habitat they and other pollinators need to sustain themselves.

“We are engaged in a couple of ‘moonshots’ that will help us accomplish our mission to restore the monarch population and habitat for all pollinators in Linn County,” Clark McLeod, director of the Monarch Research Project, told more than 150 supporters at a celebration of the organization’s one-year anniversary Tuesday.

Success at the Linn County level would position organization officials to invite other communities to join the effort, McLeod said following a tour of the Monarch Research Station on Lakeside Road in Marion.

Five years from now, with widespread public and institutional participation, that goal is to be met, and “we will be on ‘Good Morning, America,’ setting an example for the rest of the country to follow,” McLeod said.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett praised the effort as an example of “the people being ahead of politicians in efforts to improve the natural environment.”

“It’s a great community effort involving individuals, local government, the business community and environmental groups,” Corbett said.

McLeod said moonshot one, the Monarch Zones program, entails the raising and releasing of monarchs using protected natural rearing protocols and biotents.

The program’s 63 monarch zones have released thousands of butterflies — the exact number continues to grow and has yet to be tabulated — which themselves have reproduced in natural unprotected habitat, dramatically increasing the generation of monarchs that are to migrate to Mexico in September.

Officials intend on expanding the program over five years to 250 12-by-12-foot biotents, each releasing as many as 400 monarchs between July 15 and Aug. 15.

With those approximately 100,000 released butterflies averaging three offspring apiece, the effort is expected to potentially yield 300,000 butterflies emerging just in time for the fall migration, McLeod said.

Dovetailing with the rearing and release effort is moonshot two, the development of Pollinator Zones suitable for hosting the large numbers of released butterflies.

Central to that effort, McLeod said, is the “1,000-acre plan,” in which Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha and Linn County repurpose unproductive land into pollinator zones. The first 350 acres are to be planted in public parks and along trails next year, he said.

With private business entities joining the effort, Linn County would have an additional 10,000 acres of pollinator habitat in five years, McLeod said.

The Monarch Research Project jump-started the Pollinator Zones effort earlier this year with its Great Milkweed Giveaway, in which 50,000 milkweed plugs were given free to the public — a program that is to be repeated in each of the next five years.

To fund the moonshots, the Monarch Research Group has launched a $4 million drive to cover capital and operating costs for the next five years.

The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation has established a special fund to accept tax-deductible contributions to support new pollinator habitat, and the Hall-Perrine Foundation has committed the first $300,000 in a three-for-one matching grant for specific use with the 1,000-acre program.

Donations can be made online at the Community Foundation website, www.gcrcf.org. Click on “Donate,” “Existing Fund,” search “Monarch and Pollinator Zones Fund,” and click “Details.” Checks, made out to the Great Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, can be mailed to 324 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401-1841. Those mailing checks should include a note designating the money for the “Monarch and Pollinator Zones Fund.”

McLeod said $1.5 million is being earmarked to purchase seed, equipment and some contracted labor for the county and municipalities to use in the construction of 1,000 acres of high quality pollinator habitat.

“Our goal is to convert the thousand acres without taxpayer funds,” he said.

Besides supporting pollinators, the perennial vegetation is expected to improve water quality and reduce stormwater runoff, he said.

McLeod said about $500,000 a year is to help cover operating expenses associated with supporting both monarch and pollinator zones throughout Linn County.

The Monarch Research Project, as its name implies, is expanding understanding of techniques to help the monarch recover from steep population declines.

Research director Cam Watts has been engaged throughout the summer in developing rearing techniques to increase the percentage of caterpillars released as butterflies.

In the operation of 63 monarch zones this summer, Watts said officials have identified several biosecurity improvements to protect both caterpillars and chrysalises from predators.

McLeod acknowledged accomplishing the “moonshots” isn’t expected to be an easy task.

“To repair and improve our natural environment, we need communitywide support. We can pull it off if we all get involved,” he said.

How to donate

The Monarch Research Group is working to raise $4 million to help grow the monarch butterfly population and support the development of new habitat. The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation has established a special fund to accept tax-deductible contributions to support new pollinator habitat. Here is how you can make a donation to support the effort:

• Online — Visit the Community Foundation website at www.gcrcf.org. Click on “Donate,” “Existing Fund,” search “Monarch and Pollinator Zones Fund,” and click “Details.”

• By mail — Checks, made out to the Great Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, can be mailed to 324 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401-1841. Those mailing checks should include a note designating the money for the “Monarch and Pollinator Zones Fund.”

• For more information, call the Community Foundation at (319) 366-2862.

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