Iowa launches plan to save monarch butterflies

Farmers are being asked to provide habitat to increase the butterfly population.



Iowa is taking a big step to help the recovery of monarch butterflies. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium on Feb. 27 released a statewide strategy to support monarch butterfly populations in Iowa and North America. This insect is an important pollinator of plants and crops. The 135-page plan can help farmers, backyard gardeners and others with a road map for boosting monarch butterfly habitat.

The strategy developed by the consortium guides the use of a voluntary, statewide effort based on the best available science. The consortium is a diverse group of more than 30 partners, including ag and conservation organizations, agribusiness and utility companies, county associations, universities, and state and federal agencies.

“It’s a big first step. Now we have a foundation to build on,” says Steve Bradbury, an Iowa State University entomologist and strategy team leader. About $4 million has been invested in research, adding demonstration habitat plots and other initiatives in Iowa since 2014. The consortium hopes its work will attract more funding, with $1.3 million in grants already being sought.

It’s unclear exactly how many habitat acres Iowa needs to help avoid the monarch butterfly being added to the national endangered species list, he says. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is pulling that data together for states, regions and the nation in coming weeks. Previously, the government estimated the nation needs about 7 million acres in pollinator habitat.

Monarchs need milkweed to survive

In 2014, environmental groups petitioned the Fish & Wildlife Service to protect monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act. The service has until June 2019 to determine whether to add monarch butterflies. The petitioners say farming in the Midwest is among the reasons for the monarch’s declining population. Over the past 20 years the monarch population has declined about 80%.

The petition cites the widespread use of glyphosate-resistant corn and soybeans for causing “a precipitous decline of common milkweed, and monarchs, which lay their eggs only on milkweeds. The majority of the world’s monarchs originate in the U.S. Corn Belt, where milkweed loss has been severe. The Iowa consortium, with agribusinesses Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont-Pioneer and Syngenta as members, is looking for solutions, says Bradbury.

The science-based strategy fosters habitat improvements in rural landscapes that:

• coincide with agricultural production
• are sufficient in scale to support improved monarch breeding success
• complement other conservation programs

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy lays the foundation for adopting conservation practices, says Bradbury. Immediate conservation measures include using resources in farm bill programs to establish monarch breeding habitat; volunteering to establish monarch habitat on farms in consortium-sponsored demonstration projects; using monarch-friendly weed management in ditches, roadsides and other rights-of-way; and establishing monarch stations with native nectar plants and milkweeds in home and community gardens.

Farmers asked to provide more habitat

“Through creation of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium and the development of this strategy, Iowa is a leader in working collaboratively to expand monarch habitat and increase the monarch population,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. “The state-led strategy provides Iowans with additional resources to increase monarch conservation efforts.”

Discovery of the invasive weed Palmer amaranth on conservation acres planted to pollinator habitat last year could make farmers reluctant to add monarch habitat. But the state is working to provide controls to prevent Palmer seed from making its way into conservation plantings, notes Northey. “We’re unlikely to see in the future, the same kind of situation that brought Palmer seed to us previously. ISU Extension specialists and other groups are working with farmers to control this fast-growing weed from spreading,” he adds.

A recent report from Mexico found the monarch butterfly population at overwintering sites dropped 27% this year. Over the past two decades, the monarch population has declined by about 80%. Roughly 40% of all monarch butterflies that overwinter in Mexico are estimated to come from Iowa and neighboring Midwest states. Expanding monarch habitat in Iowa will play a major role in the recovery of the species.

Grow milkweed in your cornfield?

“We didn’t get to this point overnight, and we aren’t going to improve the population overnight. But we have a really strong group across many different areas of expertise working together to improve the outlook for the monarch in Iowa and beyond,” says Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Monarch butterflies face many challenges including the loss of milkweed and nectar plant habitat in its spring and summer breeding ranges. Female monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and the hatched caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. “We’re not asking farmers to grow milkweed between their corn and soybean rows,” says ISU’s Bradbury. “But as a leading producer of corn and soybeans, Iowa farmers can grow the habitat needed to help monarch butterflies recover to a stable population.”

Progress made by farmers plays big role

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act. The service has until June 2019 to determine whether or not to list the species. The decision will rest in part on progress made by farmers, ag stakeholders, private landowners and conservationists in implementing effective voluntary conservation efforts.

“This strategy is critical to rally Iowa agriculture, landowners and citizens to continue to make progress in restoring monarch habitat,” says Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Ag & Life Sciences at Iowa State University. “Our research, Extension and outreach programs in coordination with regional and national efforts, ensures these conservation measures are based on the best available scientific knowledge.”

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium was formed in 2015 in response to monarch population declines. More information about consortium members, partners and the strategy is available at



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