Superior Watershed Partnership helps protect severely declining monarch butterfly

1411_iod_swp_logoby Natasha Koss

The Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP) is wrapping up a summer-long season of monarch butterfly habitat restoration on the Stonington Peninsula. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service’s Hiawatha National Forest (HNF), and with funding from the National Forest Foundation (NFF), SWP will plant the final native pollinator plants for the season in coming weeks. SWP and project partners have been restoring important pollinator habitat for nearly five years.
Monarch butterflies travel thousands of miles from Canada and the United States to winter in the mountain forests of central Mexico. Countless numbers of these butterflies funnel right through the Stonington Peninsula in the south central Upper Peninsula. This rural peninsula juts out into Lake Michigan between Big and Little Bay de Nocs. There are only two roads on this two-mile long spit of land, both leading to the tiny fishing hamlet of Stonington, where a small dock sits next to a NOAA weather station.
From there, a short dirt road leads to the Peninsula Point Lighthouse. The Peninsula is a well known bird and butterfly migration stopover, but less known is the area’s importance for monarchs, specifically, as they make their long journey to the south. The peninsula is owned primarily by HNF, and thanks to financial assistance from NFF, is the site of a long history of monarch butterfly habitat restoration by SWP and HNF.
Research suggests the population of monarch butterflies in the eastern U.S. has declined by ninety percent — a figure so staggering one researcher commented: “In human terms it would be like losing every living person in the U.S. except those in Florida and Ohio.” The decrease, many scientists believe, is due to threats experienced during the migration.
1411_iod_swp_seedlingsWhen the butterflies start their journey each year, monarchs rely on specific plants for food and reproduction — common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) being the primary species. Milkweed is a native plant that provides plenty of value to butterflies, wasps and bees, but is of little use to farmers, who use herbicides to keep it in check. While en route to wintering grounds, scientists believe monarchs are facing more extreme weather conditions, including higher-than-normal temperatures and storms. The current global collapse in monarch populations has reinforced the meaning and importance of efforts like the SWP/HNF collaborative monarch restoration project.
For the last several years, thousands of pollinator plants have been raised from seed at the HNF greenhouse in Marquette. It takes hundreds of volunteer hours to keep these plants growing — from watering to separating over-crowded seedlings.
1411_iod_swp_plantingSpecies important to monarchs are raised, but others important for the survival of bees, bats and other pollinator insects also are cultivated — such species as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia serotina), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a variety of asters (Aster spp.) and coneflower (Rudbeckia spp.), in addition to common milkweed.
Prior to any planting on the Stonington Peninsula, SWP and HNF send field crews to pull invasive species. Plants such as houndstongue (Cynoglossum offiinale), spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe) and marsh thistle (Cirsium palustre) are among many invasive species removed at the monarch openings.
Once the native plants reach the appropriate height and age, HNF and SWP staff and volunteers plant seedlings at targeted monarch habitat openings.
Hundreds of volunteers have helped in some stage of the process, including students from North Star Academy and Northern Michigan University, Michigan State University Extension’s Life of Lake Superior, Central Upper Peninsula Cooperative Weed Management Area, and others from the Hiawatha Interpretive Association.
Since 2011, Superior Watershed Partnership, Hiawatha National Forest and project partners have planted more than 150,000 native plants to establish and restore pollinator habitat in the Central U.P., with almost a quarter of those being on the Stonington Peninsula.
SWP is an award-winning Great Lakes nonprofit organization, setting national records for pollution prevention and implementing innovative, science-based programs that achieve documented environmental, economic and educational results.
For more information, visit www.superiorwatersheds.org

 — Natasha Koss

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