116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The monarch butterfly became an endangered species last month, renewing interest in fostering prairies with milkweed and other plants for pollinators.
One of these prairies grows just south of Ely, where little bluestem and big bluestem mingle with cup plant, black-eyed Susan, coneflower and bee balm.
The Atherton Wetland, named to honor longtime Kirkwood Community College instructor Steve Atherton, who died in 2008, has 210 acres of prairie converted from traditional row crops.
“Initially, the Kirkwood agriculture program was farming it,” said Richard Dunbar, a lab technician and assistant natural resources coordinator at Kirkwood.
But the land borders Hoosier Creek and often backs up with water from Coralville Lake during flood events, said Ken Carroll, a parks and natural resources professor at Kirkwood.
“That was the problem for our ag department,” he said of the land leased from the Army Corps of Engineers. “They’d lose their crop half the time. They were just kind of like ‘I’m done. Let’s do something different with the property.’”
The bulk of the prairie — 156 acres — was planted by Kirkwood students and staff in 2019 and 2020.
That project involved $40,000 worth of seed funded through a collaboration between the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service after the wetland was declared a hot spot for the rusty patch bumblebee, Carroll said.
Kirkwood staff made sure the seed mix included milkweed, a vital food source for monarch caterpillars.
The migrating monarch was listed as an endangered species for the first time last month by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which estimates the population in North America has declined between 22 percent and 72 percent over 10 years, depending on different measurement methods, NPR reported.
During a recent visit, viceroy butterflies, which look like monarchs except for an extra black bar on their lower wings, moved from flower to flower along with bees, flies and grasshoppers.
Carroll pointed out unique plants, such as the cup plant, which is a tall plant with a daisylike yellow flower. The plant gets its name because the sturdy leaves are cupped, allowing them to capture rain or dew to provide moisture to insects or animals — even humans.
The wetland also includes plots of land around the prairie with plants, including oats, alfalfa and clover, that provide food and cover for animals, including deer, pheasants and wild turkeys.
Jackie Chace, 64, and Michael Chace, 27, both of North Liberty, visited Aug. 9 to walk the wetland’s 2.3-mile out-and-back trail. They usually hike at Lake Macbride, but decided to try something new, Jackie said.
“I’m looking for frogs,” Michael added.
Kirkwood students help maintain the Atherton Wetland and many will be involved in a prescribed burn Dunbar plans to coordinate in the fall.
“Fall burns typically promote a greater abundance of forbs in the next growing season,” Dunbar said, referring to broad-leaf flowering plants. “You try to burn no more than a third of your total prairie acreage in one season so it doesn’t have detrimental impact to wildlife that is here.”
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