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Landowners challenged to 'save the world' by planting native prairies

500 monarch butterflies released at Linn Landowner Forum in Marion

Research station manager Mike Martin picks up a monarch butterfly to be released Sunday during the Linn Landowner Forum at the Monarch Research Project in Marion. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Research station manager Mike Martin picks up a monarch butterfly to be released Sunday during the Linn Landowner Forum at the Monarch Research Project in Marion. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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MARION — Diana Dusek planted prairie seeds on about one-third of her one-acre property in Cedar Rapids this past spring.

She was looking for a long-term solution to “coexist” with the deer and slow erosion in her backyard, she said.

“This is completely new for me and has a steep learning curve,” Dusek said of her prairie project Sunday at the Linn Landowner Forum in Marion. “When they say be patient, that’s great advice.”

Despite the challenges of planting prairie seeds, which take two to three years to flourish, Dusek said she has been delighted by the flowers and plants that grew over the summer.

“It’s beyond what I was told to expect,” she said.

Whether first-time prairie planters like Dusek or seasoned backyard horticulturalists, attendees at the fourth annual forum at the Monarch Research Project had plenty of opportunities to learn about restoring native habitat, planting pollinators and reviving the monarch butterfly population. The event featured vendors, workshops and a keynote speech from Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware.

Tallamy gave his audience an assignment: “Save the world” by creating sustainable landscapes such as native prairies.

The payoff for creating such landscapes, according to Monarch Research Station manager Mike Martin, is “you get to watch butterflies, bees and hummingbirds in your backyard.”

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“To quote ‘Field of Dreams,’ if you plant it, they will come,” he said. “And they do.”

The butterflies have come to the Monarch Research Station, and Martin spent the past week collecting them for the forum’s visual finale: the release of 500 monarch butterflies.

Every year, Martin captures hundreds of butterflies, tags them, stores them in a protected biotent that is full of nectar for them to feed on, and releases them to continue their migration journey to Mexico.

Tagging the butterflies helps scientists track their migration patterns, which have been disrupted by habitat loss, pesticide and herbicide use, and the elimination of milkweed, Martin said.

To counteract those problems and others, Jean Wiedenheft encouraged those who attended her breakout session to develop a land management plan that would help support pollinators and butterflies. Wiedenheft, director of land stewardship at Indian Creek Nature Center, said landowners should consider planting prairie seeds — which were given out Sunday at the forum to cover a 400-square-foot plot.

“If you’re a landowner, whether you own 1,000 acres or 1/16th of an acre, the decisions you make on your land can have huge impacts,” Wiedenheft said. “... There’s a lot of power as a landowner to do something that’s beautiful and helps the ecology of the area.”

Mark Vitosh, district forester for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Bureau, said that in Eastern Iowa, there are a lot of “backyard woods” — half an acre to an acre of woodland in people’s backyards.

Vitosh spoke at the forum about the effect of invasive species — non-native plants and trees that push out native ones — and how they can be managed.

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He said that when he began conservation work 25 years ago, even he planted non-native species for horticultural, landscaping, medicinal and wildlife habitat purposes.

“We are now finding that was not the best thing to do,” he said.

Invasive species are invading woodlands in Iowa, disrupting natural insect, bird and wildlife habitats.

Vitosh urged attendees to educate themselves about what’s in their own backyards and create a plan to manage the non-native species they find.

Attendee Dave Anderson, 68, of Cedar Rapids, lives on about an acre of land and is very educated about his backyard ecosystem.

He has a degree in wildlife biology from Iowa State University, and he and his wife have been raising monarch butterflies for five years. He also has plans to tear up his front lawn to plant an urban prairie.

Anderson said his neighborhood is becoming more aware of the importance of native plants, but it’s happening too slowly.

“It’s a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done,” he said.

Attendee Cindy Monroe, 72, of Cedar Rapids, is planning to do her part by planting milkweed before the first snowfall this year.

“It’s so much broader than saving the monarchs,” Monroe said about sustainable conservation.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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