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Iowa sees steady progress in expanding monarch butterfly habitats

A monarch butterfly perches on a flower in a field.
Jacqueline Pohl
Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium
A new report by the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium shows a steady increase of habitat for monarch butterflies from 2015 to 2020.

Iowa has seen a steady increase in land conserved for monarch butterfly habitats.

A new report by the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium found that the state established more than 430,000 acres of monarch butterfly habitat from 2015 to 2020. It’s the organization’s effort to combat a more than80 percent declineof the species’ population over the last two decades — which has landed it on the endangered species list.

Iowa State University Monarch team leader Steve Bradbury said that Iowa and other north central states provide a summer breeding ground for the butterflies. Around 40 percent of overwintering monarchs in Mexico came from Iowa, according to Bradbury.

“If we can create more summer breeding habitat we can help build up a reserve capacity in the population,” he said. “So we can have a better chance to withstand these erratic weather patterns we're getting.”

A field with milkweed and wild flowers
Courtesy of Iowa State University
A new report by the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium shows the state is making steady progress towards goals to establish habitat for monarch butterflies.

A majority of the gains came from farmland, with around 70 percent of conserved habitat on agricultural acres in 2020.

Program specialist Nicole Shimp attributes some of this boost to farmers participating in the Conservation Reserve Program, a program that incentivizes farmers to put less productive acres into conservation.

“In the past couple years, we've had some not so great weather that has made the difference between some good land and bad land,” she said. “It really comes down to farmers wanting to do their part.”

She said towns establishing community gardens and urban landowners putting aside strips of land also played a part.

TheIowa Monarch Conservation Consortium is halfway to its goal of establishing 788,883 acres of habitat by 2038. Each acre of Iowa habitat helps to grow the pollinating species’ breeding ground in the summer.

“What I don't think we realize is how much we rely on pollinators in our everyday life. They help with the food chain,” Shimp said.

Beyond preserving the monarch’s beauty and its role as a pollinator, Bradbury said there’s more benefits to the conservation of its habitat. These parcels of wild vegetation and milkweed also benefit other species.

“Just getting biodiversity in the landscape has good outcomes in general,” he said.

Moving forward, the consortium has identified barriers to continuing its progress. Shimp said the group is a little behind in its habitat goals for Iowa urban areas.

That may be because urban parcels are harder to track, she said. The consortium is encouraging urban residents to self-report their personal conservation efforts on the app Habitally.

“We have probably done the easy acres, so we probably are going to have to do a little more convincing to get to our goals,” Shimp said. “So that is always an uphill battle.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.
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