Redesigning US Cities and Highways to Help Feed Monarch Butterflies

By Sarah Zhang on at

On highway medians, atop old landfills, in backyards—these are some of the places a monarch butterfly revival could begin. The yearly migration of monarchs from the northern US and Canada to the warmer environs of Mexico was once a spectacular sight, and a now a rare one. Their numbers have dwindled. There's no single cause, but a major one is habitat loss.

Corn fields have taken over the midwest, for example. As a New York Times piece details, 17,500 square miles of land have been converted from federal conservation reserves to farmland since 2007. Overall, the rate of grasslands turning into fields is "comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia," according to one study. On top of that, farmers have shifted habits to use more herbicides, wiping out the the milkweed that once grew between crop rows and fed caterpillars.

Redesigning Our Cities and Highways to Help Feed Monarch Butterflies

Milkweed caterpillar munching its namesake plant, via Elliote Rusty Harold/Shutterstock

For this reason, groups like the Pollinator Partnership are working to convince infrastructure owners to allow the planting of milkweed in unlikely places. They aren't asking for vast butterfly preserves, simply for strips of land otherwise forgotten. For example, the Pollinator Partnership is seeking national legislation that would encourage state highways to plant bee, and monarch, friendly habitats on highway medians instead of mowing them down. They're also working to get private corporations on their side. Chevron and Waste Management Inc. are among the handful of companies that have committed to butterfly friendly habitats at old refineries and landfills.

Other groups are taking a different tack, appealing to individuals rather than corporations. Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas has signed up over 7,000 volunteers to create waystations in backyards to feed migrating butterflies across the country. They've also sold milkweed for monarch supporters to plant in their gardens. These can also then be certified and added to a central registry of such parks (there are currently 7,322 such waystations on the list).

A single backyard or highway median may not seem like much but, by appealing to landowners big and small, perhaps enough habitat can be pieced together to save the monarch butterfly. [The New York Times]

Photo via Chris Frost/Shutterstock