Outdoors

Miles of Linn County ditches getting new life

Outdoors: Partnership will benefit native flowers, pollinators

Common milkweed grows in a ditch northern Linn County. Under a new partnership between Linn County and the Monarch Research Project, thousands of miles will be populated with a seed mixture to grow milkweed and other native flowers. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
Common milkweed grows in a ditch northern Linn County. Under a new partnership between Linn County and the Monarch Research Project, thousands of miles will be populated with a seed mixture to grow milkweed and other native flowers. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

A thousand miles of Linn County road ditches will bloom with milkweed and other native flowers under a new partnership between the county and the Monarch Research Project.

“The 1,000 Mile Pilot is a unique public-private partnership established to provide refuge and food for endangered bees, butterflies and other pollinators by establishing significant native habitat in public road rights of way,” said Supervisor Brent Oleson, who introduced the resolution approved Tuesday.

Besides expanding pollinator habitat, the replacement of blue and brome grass with diverse native plants will beautify roadsides, provide habitat for other wildlife, reduce long-term maintenance costs and increase the efficiency of ditches’ primary purpose, which is to store and transport water, he said.

The project will plant native habitat in 60- to 100-square-foot mini-prairies along at least 1,000 miles of the county’s 2,200 miles of secondary roadway ditches.

“We’re going into it as a pilot, but we hope it will establish a model that can be replicated throughout the country,” said Clark McLeod, president of the Monarch Research Project, which through grants and fundraising will pay most of the initiative’s estimated $1 million cost.

Secondary roadsides constitute the largest amount of underutilized land in Linn County and in many other parts of the country, said Rob Roman, roadside vegetation manager for the Linn County Secondary Road Department.

The seed mix, which includes 48 species of grass and forbs, will cost $520 per acre, for a year-one seed cost of $86,816, Roman said. The first year’s planting will cover 167 acres in the county’s southeast quadrant, he said.

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McLeod said the mini-prairie concept will provide a patchwork of habitat ideally suited for traveling insects.

“You don’t want a few large tracts. You want a web of paths for pollinators to follow,” he said.

McLeod said the prairie-establishment process has been automated with the development of a truck-mounted, articulated mechanical arm capable of precision mowing, herbicide application and hydro-seeding with a GPS unit to map the locations of the mini-prairies.

Iowa State University, which helped develop the native seed mix, will test and monitor results during the four-year pilot.

The 1,000 Mile Pilot complements the 1,000 Acre Plan, a partnership between the Monarch Research Project and the cities of Cedar Rapids and Marion and Linn County Conservation. That project adds pollinator habitat in city parks, golf courses and other public properties. In 2017, the project’s first year, 350 acres of pollinator habitat were planted, with another 229 acres to be planted this year.

The loss of milkweed in the Midwest, through the widespread adoption of herbicides and the conversion of natural areas to cropland, is among the leading causes of the more than 80 percent decline in monarch butterflies during the past 20 years.

The United States is studying whether to protect the monarch under the Endangered Species Act, with a decision expected next year.

The seed mix includes four varieties of milkweed — the only plant on which monarch butterflies lay eggs and the only food monarch caterpillars eat.

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The project is expected to add nearly 1 million stems of milkweed in Linn County — about two-thirds of the 1.5 million stems needed to support a sustainable monarch population, according to John Pleasants, an ISU assistant professor.

Monarch Research Project employees will select and prepare the sites during summer and plant the seed mixture in the fall.

Oleson said the project coincides with Linn County residents’ expanding awareness of the need to protect and preserve the natural environment.

The county’s primary commitment to its success, he said, is to help maintain the mini-prairies after they are established.

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