Save the Monarch campaigns grow across Iowa, nationally
Overwhelmed by global warming? See no solution to dirty water?
Save the monarch butterfly.
The iconic black-and-orange butterfly has become nature's celebrity and a rallying symbol of agreeable, grass-roots environmentalism after news spread over the past two years of a stark decline in its population — 90 percent in the last 20 years.
The growing number of campaigns to save monarchs range from initiatives launched by President Barack Obama to those by an eastern Iowa Facebook group, from university research scientists to Iowa farmers. Even bicyclists in the middle of their own zany migration on RAGBRAI got into the act Friday.
David Osterberg, professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, helped mold milkweed seed balls to the size of a big marble for the Monarchs in Eastern Iowa group to hand out to RAGBRAI riders, who tossed them into ditches on the way out of Mount Vernon.
He said climate change involves complex layers of policy and deep social change, "but this is something we can do. We don't see polar bears. The closest we get is a Coca-Cola advertisement. You've seen a monarch in your backyard; you've touched one."
What monarchs need: Milkweed
Monarchs danced in the breeze through our childhoods and inspired novels, documentaries and poetry. Their 3,000-mile migration from overwintering grounds in Mexico to the Canadian border and back again is a wonder of nature. But destruction to their overwintering grounds and habitat loss, especially along their migratory path through Iowa, has caused the decline. Along the way, monarchs lay eggs and dine upon several varieties of milkweed, largely eradicated from the row crop fields in Iowa, which cover two-thirds of the state.
Planting milkweed is seen as one answer to rally around. Efforts were mounted quickly on all levels.
The Obama administration launched a plan in March to increase the number of pollinators and monarchs by seeding habitat along the Interstate Highway 35 "monarch flyway" from Texas to Minnesota.
When it comes from the highest levels, says U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Doug Helmers, you know it's a movement. As the private lands coordinator for the agency in Iowa, he has worked with Iowa landowners on a series of small patches of more than 10 acres of land to grow milkweed, using a $200,000 budget, half of it from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
He has seen more enthusiasm for the project than any he can remember.
"Whether you are urban or rural, people everywhere can identify with the monarch. You've seen them raised in school," Helmers said.
Remember when trees were covered with butterflies?
Bicyclists played a part largely because Patty Ankrum of Mount Vernon remembers those childhood days.
"I went outside when I was in fourth grade. The trees were covered in orange and black," she said. "I got a box and filled it with them. I laid the box on my bed and opened it. The whole room was filled with monarchs. It was 1963.
"Seeing a monarch now is an event, something you tell people about. There is a whole life in our countryside that just doesn't seem to be there anymore because of lack of habitat."
She started the Monarchs in Eastern Iowa Facebook group in March. It grew to 374 members. The group decided to enlist the bicyclists' help by giving them 2,000 balls made of soil, compost and milkweed seed. She didn't worry about farmers who had spent time and money for decades to get rid of it. "It's not an issue for them anymore," she said, citing crops genetically modified to resist weed-killing chemicals.
Farmers didn't seem to mind.
"There is a place for everything," said Tim Keegan, a farmer near Lisbon, where the riders passed after Mount Vernon. "We are always supportive of animals and insects like the monarch. We can manage things accordingly. Just so we know what we are dealing with."
Studying ways to increase the monarch population
The monarch is even creating new factions of scientists, conservation and farm groups. Monsanto gives financial support for the milkweed seed distribution by Monarch Watch, the Kansas conservation organization that has galvanized the monarch movement. Several Iowa farm groups, including the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, have joined the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, established this year by Iowa State University Agriculture and Life Sciences and state agencies.
"It's very unique, and other states are looking to emulate what we are doing here in Iowa," said Sue Blodgett, an ISU entomologist.
The consortium grows nine different milkweed species at 12 ISU research farms to study their effectiveness for enhancing the monarch population. In general, common milkweed and swamp milkweed are two varieties suited throughout Iowa, but others may work depending on the location, such as butterfly milkweed.
"We want to make sure (the milkweed) is adapted to Iowa and we aren't introducing something more suited for Massachusetts or Georgia. Botanists are concerned about those issues," she said. "We need answers that are research based. It's not just a matter of planting more milkweed, but how and where we plant it."
Iowa is a critical area at the center of the migration, she said. Monarchs lay eggs on the plant and the caterpillar eats it. The adult butterflies also feed on the nectar from the flowers.
The monarch has become a de facto spokesman for pollinators in similar peril, such as bees vital to the web of plant reproduction, and as an indicator of our fragile relationship with nature.
Iowans hope to see the monarchs in greater numbers as they head back to Mexico in September. The number of overwintering monarchs did increase last year, according to Monarch Watch, but the recovery to prior decades would be a significant challenge.
That's why Pella Wildlife Co. and other nonprofit groups have been busy distributing milkweed seeds to more than 1,200 people who signed up on its website to sustain monarchs and caterpillar adoption kits at its kiosk at Jordan Creek Town Center. It is also working with the Iowa Department of Transportation to establish 1,500 plants along I-35 and enlisting Iowa classrooms across the state to raise and release monarchs, said Ron DeArmond, the nonprofit's chief executive officer.
How butterflies dance
The appeal of the monarch goes beyond science to art, said Iowa native Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch.
As a child in Manson she followed a flowing "butterfly highway" above her into the woods one day and shook the lower branches of a tree filled with them.
"Two hundred monarchs were dancing in the air around me," she said.
Vetter-Drusch, 24, is a professional dancer today in New York City who started the nonprofit Moving for Monarchs. She has brought her program of dance and storytelling all along the migration path from Mexico to Iowa to relate the story of the imperiled monarch. She hopes people will submit their own dances inspired by the monarch and send them to her.
"The butterfly has always been a metaphor for dance," she said.
In her presentations, people rise to dance like butterflies, a "cross pollination" to connect the monarchs' story and our own.
"We don't have time to wait for government," she said. "This is a grass-roots movement, and we are acting as the catalyst."
Monarch resources and information
Monarch Watch has detailed zone maps for milkweed varieties to plant in your area. Its Monarch Waystation seed kits are also available, along with planting guides.
Pella Wildlife Co. has a kiosk at Jordan Creek Town Center devoted to monarchs with adoption kits for caterpillars and a Monarch Butterfly Sustainability Program that distributes milkweed seeds.
Moving for Monarchs is a nonprofit that tells the story of the monarch in public programs through dance and storytelling.
Last August, The Des Moines Registerdetailed the research behind the monarchs' decline.