- Associated Press - Sunday, November 22, 2015

CONWAY, Ark. (AP) - Conservationists are working with wildlife lovers, gardeners, schools, farmers, cities and even highway representatives to make the annual journey of one small migrant more welcoming.

Each spring, millions of orange-and-black monarch butterflies leave their winter habitat in Mexico and fly hundreds or even thousands of miles north — some as far as Manitoba, Canada.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/1SJeEVG ) reports that many of these insects, whose wingspans can reach 4 inches, will cut their trip short and settle along the way if they find the right habitat — one offering plenty of milkweed for their caterpillars.

Now, a diverse group of state and federal agencies, private organizations and businesses are teaming up to make Arkansans more aware of the butterflies’ needs and more responsive to them lest the insects, like much of their habitat, vanish.

“If milkweed no longer exists, the monarch will disappear,” said the National Wildlife Federation’s Geralyn Hoey, who was among dozens of people gathering in Conway last week to start planning for ways to benefit monarchs and other pollinators, such as bees and hummingbirds.

According to the federation, more than a billion Eastern monarchs migrated to Mexico 20 years ago. In the winter of 2014, that number was down to 60 million. Western populations of monarchs that overwinter in California also have declined.

The problem is a loss of habitat — especially milkweed, the only plant the monarch caterpillar will eat.

Native varieties of milkweed once populated ditches, fields and roadsides but now often get mowed down or succumb to herbicides.

Finding native milkweed or its seeds can be challenging. Tropical varieties often can’t survive Arkansas winters.

That’s where the likes of Arkansas Master Gardeners, the state Plant Board and Pine Ridge Gardens, a Pope County nursery devoted to native plants, enter the picture. They hope to spread the word to backyard gardeners and others about milkweed — which types to plant and how to keep them alive since milkweed can be hard to propagate.

“What we hope to come out of these (meetings) is a partnership to develop a strategy for conserving monarchs and other pollinators,” said Joe Krystofik of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We expect this to be a continuing effort.”

Participants in the effort want to encourage private landowners with technical and monetary assistance to “do things that would be more beneficial” to pollinators, Krystofik said. Federal farm legislation already provides for some incentives, he noted.

Government agencies can do their part, too. While highway department workers must keep roadsides and rights of way safe for motorists’ visibility, they can safely let some pollinator-attracting plants grow.

The same principle applies to utilities’ rights of way. Indeed, Clean Line Energy Partners and the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. were among those represented at the meeting last week.

Krystofik noted that a friend had recently noticed that land near the Hope airport was “loaded with milkweed.”

“They didn’t even realize it,” he said of workers there.

While airports wouldn’t want the milkweed too close to runways, other nearby areas are fine for the plant to grow and thrive, meeting participants said.

The Arkansas Airport Operators Association was another group represented at the gathering.

Mary Lynn Mentz, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said she understands that milkweed can’t be safely grown in some areas.

But she noted, “There’s a lot of chicken houses in western Arkansas. That’s a perfect opportunity — when you’ve got five chicken houses on 10 acres” to plant milkweed, she said. Or, if it’s already there, let it grow naturally rather than mowing it, she added.

“I think our biggest efforts need to be with farmers,” Mentz said. “The word’s got to get out there. … Make them care about the monarch.”

Farmers often need financial incentives to set aside small areas for pollinators rather than money-making crops, she said. But when they get enough pollinators visiting their fields over time, their crops also will do better, and that translates to an economic benefit, she said.

“We’ve got it (milkweed),” Mentz said. “We just have to educate people to retain it.”

Grace Barnett, the wildlife federation’s monarch outreach specialist, is helping promote a program called the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. The pledge, available online, allows mayors around the country to sign a pledge committing to helping restore the monarch’s habitat and to encourage residents to do the same.

Barnett said mayors of 32 cities had signed the pledge. She said she hopes to see some Arkansas towns on the list soon.

“Municipalities in particular can provide habitat at public parks, median strips, community gardens and municipal buildings that serve as community hubs such as recreation centers and libraries,” the pledge says in part. “Schools, homes and businesses can all provide essential habitat for monarchs too.”

Mike Budd, who also is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said monarch conservation is one of the service’s top five priorities. A good habitat for monarchs is a good habitat for many other creatures, too, he said.

Knowledge of the monarch’s biology helps build an understanding of what the creature needs to survive.

Its caterpillars need milkweed most in March and April, Budd said. The butterflies need nectar when they’re heading back to Mexico in October. And that happens to be the time when nectar-rich goldenrods are at their peak in Arkansas, he said.

Specific strategies suggested at the conference included increased access to milkweed seeds, distribution of informational brochures about the monarch and efforts to get more pollinator gardens planted.

Among others participating in the Conway meeting were the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, the Arkansas Farm Bureau, Audubon Arkansas, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, The Xerces Society and the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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