Farm groups launch voluntary ‘Farmers for Monarchs’ effort

As monarch butterflies flutter on their 3,000-mile trek north to New York and Canada this spring, the nation’s farmers are being asked to help provide respite along the way.

Farm groups, along with several agribusiness companies and conservation organizations, launched Farmers for Monarchs earlier this winter as part of a voluntary effort to restore the diminishing butterfly’s habitat.

Through the winter, monarchs live in the forested mountains of Mexico, said Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. But last year, monarchs clumped in those forests covered just 2.2 hectares, he said.

“It’s 20 percent of the size of what they were, on average, in the past 20 to 30 years,” he told a group of Kansas Farm Bureau members during a lobbying trip to Washington D.C. this spring.

The voluntary push by farm groups stems from growing concerns about a potential listing of the butterfly. In August 2014, environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking that the monarch be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

GMOs, precision agriculture and glyphosate were cited as causes of the monarch’s decline.

Some blame the monarch’s population drop on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops and Roundup herbicide. A 2012 Iowa State University and University of Minnesota study shows half the milkweed in the Corn Belt disappeared between 1999 and 2010. The researchers noted the loss is coincided with the increased use of glyphosate herbicide in conjunction with increased planting of genetically modified crops.

Yates said monarchs need nectaring plants to eat and milkweed to lay eggs.

A decision on the listing must be made by June 2019.

“If they list this species, it will have a dramatic impact on your ability of farm,” Yates said, noting that some tools like certain crop production programs might be more difficult to use. “We are looking at a broad section of not only the American economy but the American landscape that could be affected by the habitat area for the monarchs. It behooves us to look at ways to increase conservation practices for the monarch.”

Yates said the wildlife service is currently evaluating monarch conservation efforts along the migration route. The service is working with farm groups on voluntary efforts that could lead to reversing population losses, potentially rendering a listing unnecessary.

“Before we get to that decision-making point in June, one of the things we are engaging at Farm Bureau is to identify opportunities to put more habitat on the landscape,” he said.

That doesn’t mean taking land out of production, he said. It might mean planting milkweed along a fencerow, roadway or around a center pivot. Monarch friendly mixes also are being included in Conservation Reserve Program seed. Some universities are studying seeding milkweed along utility corridors and major highways.

Farmers should consider how to manage the habitat, also, Yates said. That might mean mowing later in the season.

“It is different management practices, but it won’t affect your yield,” he said. “We are hoping … that these patchwork quarter-acre, half-acre plots will be an important nectar source for this species.

But U.S. farmers can only do so much, Yates added. He noted that Mexico and Canada also are part of trilateral discussions.

“We aren’t going to be able to turn the tide on the monarch migration just in terms of U.S. agriculture’s impact to conservation. It can play a big difference, I will argue that. But we need our partners both in Mexico and Canada to be part of that.”

Also, for monarch conservation to happen, it can’t put the producers out of business, he said.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Ryan Flickner, senior director of Kansas Farm Bureau’s advocacy division, said Kansas has a working monarch plan and is already ahead of the curve because of the thousands of acres of native prairie.

“The Flint Hills, Smoky Hills and Gyp Hills, because they haven’t been disturbed, there is still an abundance of milkweed and other nectaring flowers all through the native grassland prairie system.”

More can be done, he added. The Kansas Forest Service plans to launch a project of its own next year.

“We don’t want to stand here and say the sky is falling,” Flickner said, adding, “This is something in the next five or 10 years that we in agriculture are going to have to grapple with.”

Jacob Brubaker, a Fort Hays State University student who was on the KFB trip, said his family already plants habitat for pheasants.

Maybe, he said, if the flowering plants and milkweed that help monarchs were part of the mix, “what might be good for one species might have benefits for another.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].