- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Milkweed, native grasses and other flowers are growing in a new garden at an Interstate 35 welcome center in hopes of providing refreshment for some winged travelers.

Nationwide efforts to help monarchs along I-35, which has been declared the “monarch highway,” are being made from Texas to Minnesota. The dwindling numbers of monarchs could be reversed with new habitats in the states along the monarch migration paths, an Oklahoma Transportation Department spokesman said.

This spring, the transportation department opened a monarch way station, said Transportation Department engineer Brad Mirth. Visitors can view the garden at the welcome center at I-35 and NE 122.

Flowers and plants that attract monarchs are also popping up along I-35 as Transportation Department crews are mowing less to allow flowers to grow, Mirth said.

The efforts to plant milkweed, which is the monarchs’ favorite source of nectar, and other flowering plants will also help honey bees, Mirth said.

Mirth said he has seen only one monarch this spring, and that was in the Wichita Mountains in southwest Oklahoma.

The monarchs generally migrate through Oklahoma in the spring and fall, and their migration paths mostly follow the I-35 corridor. Population counts taken in Mexico every winter show a decline in the monarch population, Mirth said.

The Transportation Department is collaborating with the Federal Highway Administration and the states of Missouri, Texas, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota.

“It’s been a fun project to be outdoors and preserve the milkweed native grasses,” Mirth said.

Crews are mowing medians of highways and interstates this year as usual, and for 15 to 20 feet from the pavement along highway shoulders, but less mowing overall will increase the flowering plants the butterflies need to survive.

The question has come up, Mirth said, as to whether planting a monarch way station is a good idea so close to the interstate.

“Why are we attracting them to a busy interstate? The question has been asked and vehicle fatalities are a concern for butterflies, but we are actually just providing more food source for those butterflies that are already here,” Mirth said. “We want to do our part for the monarchs.”

Two years ago, Mirth said, Transportation Department crews mowed about 70,000 acres from spring to early June. So far this year, only 27,000 acres have been mowed. Milkweed spreads naturally and is abundant in Oklahoma, he said.

Kristen Baum, biologist and Oklahoma State University associate professor, said statewide efforts could sustain monarch numbers with new habitat.

“It is too early to know how the overall monarch population is doing, but the availability of more milkweed and nectar plants this spring should have been very helpful,” Baum said. “We are still finding a few eggs and caterpillars in Oklahoma, but the monarchs are nearing the northern limit of their summer breeding grounds in the upper Midwest and southern Canada, so we won’t see much monarch activity again until later this year.”

Baum said monarchs will appear in late August and September in Oklahoma, when they return and lay eggs on milkweed. Their offspring will join the fall migration south.

“Nectar sources will be very important during this time as well, especially during peak migration in late September and early October. We hope to see lots of monarchs during migration this fall,” Baum said.

In northeast Oklahoma City, the Transportation Department’s monarch station contains five types of milkweed. The department’s workers and volunteers will water and maintain the garden through the summer months.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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