‘It’s important to give back’: Organizations create habitats to support endangered monarch population

For many Wisconsin residents, monarch butterflies are a symbol of summer. But this year, locals said butterflies and caterpillars were harder to spot.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, has added the migratory monarch butterfly to its listing endangered species on July 21, confirming why people have been reporting seeing fewer monarch caterpillars on milkweed.

In an effort to support these butterflies — and all pollinators — groups in Wisconsin are creating habitats and educating residents on how they can help.

“Making the world a better place for monarchs is going to bring a lot of other species with us,” said Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.

While the IUCN assessment classifies monarchs as endangered, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to add butterflies to the endangered species list. The organization said in 2020, monarchs meets the criteria to be listed under the act, but there were other species at greater risk of extinction.

Oberhauser said the UW Arboretum has 1,200 acres of habitat in Madison and 500 acres in outlying areas to support a variety of species, including monarch butterflies. The Arboretum also conducts research on best management practices for native areas and organizes nature walks and classes for families and residents.

“All of these activities connect people and organizations and people and the land,” Oberhauser said.

Each summer, monarchs travel north to Wisconsin where they lay their eggs and create generations of butterflies that will migrate south in the fall. That’s why organizations in Wisconsin have made it their mission to educate people about the importance of pollinators and to set aside land for these species.

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At the Green Bay Botanical Garden, staff have planted milkweed throughout the landscape, as they are the only plants on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Linda Gustke, director of education and guest experience at the garden, said they will be planting milkweed in their expansion of the Kindergarten, as well as other areas they are restoring.

“Last fall, we were removing invasive cattails around one of our retention ponds and our horticulture team planted about 1,800 native wetland emergent plants, including milkweed,” Gustke said.

The Garden also presents until next spring an exhibition entitled “Habitat”, designed by Smithsonian Gardens. Structures of fungi, bees, monarchs and other organisms are displayed throughout the garden as a way to connect and educate visitors on the need for habitats and how they can be protected.

The Wild Ones Fox Valley Area Chapter also encourages residents to incorporate native plants into their landscaping practices.

Shannon Davis-Foust, president of the organization, said people can help monarchs and all pollinators by limiting the use of chemicals in their lawn care routines. Certain plants that people consider weeds can be “an important source of food and habitat” for the creatures, she said.

Donald Maum, sustainability manager at Alsum Farms, Inc., said farmers should set aside land for pollinators by not mowing areas around the edges of fields and reducing the toxicity of the chemicals they use.

Alsum Farms has more than 50 acres of restored grassland and pollinator habitat, but Maum said farmers can make a significant impact even with much smaller plots of land.

“Eighty percent of the world’s food supply depends on pollinators,” Maum said. “It’s important to give back.”

It may be easier to think of concrete solutions to monarch habitat loss, but Oberhauser said climate change — the second factor affecting monarch populations — is also key to consider.

Oberhauser said doing what we can to mitigate climate change will help sustain the monarch population and many other species.

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