Effort to increase monarch butterfly population sets goals

Tuesday, April 3, 2018
The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium has set goals to increase the monarch habitat and number of milkweed plants in the state substantially in the next 20 years. In the last 20 years, the monarch population has declined by 80 percent to the point where it is nearing the endangered species list. Iowa falls entirely within the monarch's northern breeding core. (Above) A monarch caterpillar crawls across the leaf of a flower. It will soon form a pupa and chrysalis before emerging an adult butterfly.
Photo submitted

Monarch butterfly enthusiast George Kruger has been working to protect the butterfly for more than 10 years and recently his interest has been spreading to some of his friends.

"When George would have his garden tour and he had his sign letting everybody know he had a monarch weigh station that made me aware of the butterflies," Kruger's friend and fellow monarch enthusiast, Sue Bendlin said. "I just never really thought in depth about it. When I found monarch eggs on some of my flowers, I thought, 'I need to try to get involved in this,' but I need to talk to George to see how to do it. All I had to do was pick the leaves the eggs were on and put them in tiny medicine bottles. I tucked them in and just waited."

Bendlin said she remembers chasing monarchs on the farm when she was a child, but she had not seen one in many years. That changed late last summer and prompted her to get involved in providing milkweed for the butterflies to lay eggs on and nectar flowers to help sustain them.

"When we were sitting on the patio at my farm and I saw a monarch, I just came unglued," Bendlin said. "I never let it out of my sight. There definitely is a change in the monarch population. We just took for granted that there would always be monarchs."

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is a document released last month which details efforts to increase acres of habitat in Iowa over the next 20 years. The goal is to increase habitat acres by approximately 480,000 to 830,000 and provide 127 million to 188 million new milkweed stems in the same time frame. The monarch population has declined by 80 percent in the last 20 years.

Organizations across Iowa and the Midwest as well as citizens like Kruger and Bendlin are taking positive steps to put a stop to the decreases and bring up population numbers.

According to Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife diversity biologist Stephanie Shepherd, the Prairie Lakes Wildlife Unit, based out of Ruthven, in conjunction with the Iowa DNR Prairie Resource Center, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Natural Resource Conservation Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has reconstructed approximately 500 acres of monarch-friendly prairie habitat in Clay County from 2014-18.

"I think it is very important for us to grow some milkweed and nurture the monarchs because they are close to being on the endangered species list," Kruger said. "They say once that happens, the monarchs will lose the tracking system that allows them to go to Mexico and come back. If it loses that, they will all die."

Kruger said he has been passionate for monarchs for years, even seeking to have the monarch named the state butterfly, setting up a monarch weigh station at his house eight years ago, protecting monarch eggs he finds on any of the five species of milkweed he raises in his garden and painting pictures and crafts of the insect in his spare time.

Occasionally, Kruger even wakes up at four in the morning with an idea about monarchs and won't be able to get back to sleep. His latest monarch inspired endeavor is to gather others interested in protecting the species to meet at the library to discuss issues facing the butterfly.

"I just graduated to another level," Kruger said. "Before my monarch habit was a passion. Now, it is an obsession."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until June 2019 to determine whether the monarch should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Shepherd said she was confident efforts taken by the consortium would make positive progress before a decision must be made.

"All the members of that group are coming at it from a different angle," Shepherd said. "They are a species that everyone recognizes and everyone loves. I think there is a connection with people that a species that common could be blanked out. If the monarch does get listed on the Endangered Species Act, that could have broad ramifications. I think everyone in the consortium can get behind that. We hope it is healthy enough that it does not need extra protection."

Shepherd said the three main leaders of the consortium are the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University and the Iowa DNR. The group consists of groups across many backgrounds including agricultural and conservation associations, agribusiness and utility companies, universities and county, state and federal agencies.

Iowa's location in the monarch's northern breeding area makes it essential to the recovery of the species.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: