Now's Your Chance to Help Save the Imperiled Monarch Butterfly—and Get Paid to Do So

The federal government announces plans to spend millions to restore the iconic insect's milkweed habitat at schools and community gardens.
(Photo: Michael Fiala/Reuters)
Feb 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

If you want to save a monarch butterfly, plant some weeds.

That mantra has been circulating among conservationists and government scientists, who are alarmed over the dramatic decline in monarch populations, which have plummeted by about 90 percent in the past two decades.

Now the government is putting its money where its mouth is. On Monday, United States officials announced they will spend $3.2 million to restore vanishing native habitat for the monarchs and promote other conservation efforts.

The government will partner with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to carry out the initiative.

Community groups and individuals can also help.

How?

By planting even small patches of native milkweed, which monarchs depend on for food, shelter, and reproduction.

Once common in farm fields in the Midwest, a crucial breeding ground for monarchs during their annual migration to Mexico, milkweed has disappeared over the past 20 years with the rise of industrial agriculture and the spread of pesticide-resistant, genetically engineered crops, according to several scientific studies. In Iowa, for instance, milkweed covered half of farm fields in 1999; a decade later the plant was found on only 8 percent of the land.

The loss of milkweed has coincided with the decline in monarch populations. Many factors contributed to milkweed destruction, including overdevelopment, climate change, and overuse of herbicides such as Roundup in crop production—particularly for corn used to make ethanol.

“The only way we can reverse this decline of monarch butterflies is through individual actions, through people turning their backyards into a more wildlife-friendly space,” said Miles Grant, NWF’s senior communications director.

Grant said people can also encourage schools to plant milkweed in their yards and lobby local governments to “take more action by turning their highways, byways, and right-of-ways into more wildlife-friendly spaces that have native milkweed instead of just grass.”

Grant, who will be planting milkweed in his own garden this spring, said his neighbor converted a 10-square-foot swatch of his backyard into a milkweed patch. The butterflies arrived en masse.

“I was astounded by the number of monarchs,” Grant said. “It was like a man dying of thirst in the desert—they were just all over this patch of milkweed.”

Milkweed, while not the most attractive garden plant, is easily grown, as long as the right variety is selected for particular regions. More information on buying and growing milkweed can be found on the NWF website.

Another threat, according to Grant, has been well-intentioned individuals who have planted a tropical form of milkweed, which competes with native varieties and is not beneficial to monarchs or other pollinators.

As for the new initiative, some $2 million will be used to restore more than 200,000 acres of milkweed, including private and community gardens and some 750 schoolyards, as well as the Interstate 35 corridor, which runs from Minnesota to Texas and is a major monarch flyway. Some $1.2 million more will finance a conservation fund to provide grants to farmers and other landowners to restore habitat.

“We won’t know exactly how the money will be spent until we do a request for proposals and evaluate the proposals that come in,” NFWF spokesperson Rob Blumenthal said in an email. “We do have three general themes that will guide the grant program: Habitat restoration; outreach and education; and seed production and distribution.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a petition to list the monarch as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Raising awareness of the need for milkweed is critical, experts say.

“Milkweed is their home,” Grant said. “If monarchs have to travel too far from one milkweed patch to the next, they won’t have enough energy to lay their eggs and make the next step of their journey.”

That’s why even small patches can help.

“You don’t have to plant your whole yard,” Grant said. “Find a corner that you don’t use and don’t enjoy mowing and let it go wild. If folks can do that, we can give these monarchs a fighting chance.”