ARTICLE

Consortium tries to save the monarch butterfly

With populations dwindling, working with 'a sense of urgency'

Nick Onken, an Iowa State University student majoring in agricultural business, inspects milkweed seedlings last week at an ISU greenhouse. About 10,000 seedlings of nine different milkweed species will be transplanted into small demonstration plots on 13 ISU research farms as part of research conducted by the newly organized Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. Iowa State University photo
Nick Onken, an Iowa State University student majoring in agricultural business, inspects milkweed seedlings last week at an ISU greenhouse. About 10,000 seedlings of nine different milkweed species will be transplanted into small demonstration plots on 13 ISU research farms as part of research conducted by the newly organized Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. Iowa State University photo
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Conservation groups, agricultural interests and researchers are joining to launch a statewide effort aimed at reversing the rapid decline of monarch butterfly populations.

“We are proceeding with a sense of urgency. I think we’ve started in time,” said Sue Blodgett, chair of the Department of Entomology at Iowa State University, which is partnering with state agencies, conservationists, farmers and agriculture organizations and businesses in the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium.

The goal is to enhance the monarch butterfly’s habitat, primarily by planting more monarch-sustaining milkweed, in rural and urban Iowa.

The consortium includes most of the same players that established Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy and, like that effort to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Iowa’s surface waters, it will take a science-based approach in developing best management practices.

The consortium will be “looking at cost-effective ways to introduce milkweed into the landscape” in places ranging from roadsides and restored prairies to backyards, said Robin Pruisner, entomologist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, a lead agency along with the Department of Natural Resources and ISU.

Last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a campaign to save the declining monarch butterfly, whose population, it said, has fallen about 90 percent in recent years.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering whether the monarch should be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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Also last month, the non-profit Center for Food and Safety, one of the petitioners for the review, issued a report asserting that two decades of Roundup Ready crops have nearly eradicated milkweed — the monarch caterpillar’s sole source of food — in cropland of the vital Midwest breeding ground.

The Fish and Wildlife Service attributed the decline to “loss of habitat due to agricultural practices, development and cropland conversion,” as well as “degradation of wintering habitat in Mexico and California.”

“Monarchs need milkweed. But for farmers, milkweed is a weed which competes with crops in farm fields for water, soil and nutrients,” said Charla Lord, a spokeswoman for Monsanto, which is a member of the consortium.

“Effective weed management, however, doesn’t prevent agriculture from contributing to conservation efforts aimed at finding places outside farm fields for monarchs to thrive,” Lord said.

Monsanto’s Robert Fraley shared the 2013 World Food Prize with two other scientists for their development of genetically modified crops, including Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products, which can withstand glyphosate, a herbicide especially effective on milkweed.

“The consortium will offer opportunities to connect rural and urban communities in a common goal to ensure monarchs remain part of Iowa’s landscape,” said Craig Hill, a Milo farmer and president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, a consortium member.

Efforts are underway with the planting of 10,000 seeds of nine milkweed species in ISU greenhouses. The seedlings will be transplanted into demonstration plots on 13 research farms, where researchers will study how they grow, proliferate and adapt. Researchers also will monitor butterflies in the plots from egg and larvae through adult stages.

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