Idaho agricultural producers can voluntarily help the monarch butterfly on their farms and ranches through a variety of conservation practices offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This assistance comes at a critical time as recent reports show the western population of the monarch butterfly is at an all-time low.
“With the monarch butterfly’s western population in peril, we’re encouraging our Idaho producers to work with their local USDA Service Center and Soil and Water Conservation District on how to implement pollinator habitat practices into their operation for the benefit of our beloved monarch butterflies,” said Curtis Elke, state conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Idaho. “NRCS offers more than three dozen conservation practices that enable producers to help monarchs and other pollinators as well as benefit their agricultural operations.”
The overwintering monarch butterfly’s western population declined by 85 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to counts released by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Nationwide, the species has seen population declines since the 1980s, in part because of the decrease in native plants like milkweed – the sole source of food for monarch caterpillars.
As monarch butterflies migrate, they must have the right plants in bloom along their migration route to fuel their flight. Producers – including those in Idaho, eastern Oregon and eastern Washington– can play an important role in helping the species.
Through a variety of conservation practices, NRCS helps producers improve management of healthy stands of milkweed and high-value nectar plants and protect these stands from exposure to pesticides.
Planting or protecting and increasing the size of native milkweed stands is critically important to rebuild the western monarch population.
NRCS also recommends Idaho producers to establish plants that bloom in late summer and early fall, as monarchs leave the region to return to overwintering sites along the California coast. These fall-blooming species include rabbitbrush, goldenrod and asters and sunflowers. When combined with other monarch nectar plants, such as yellow spiderflower, native sunflowers and giant hyssop that bloom in June and July, when monarchs first arrive in Idaho, producers can help sustain monarchs through their whole time in the area. Producers may also speak to their local district conservationist about what varieties of nectar plants best suit their land.
“With this abrupt one-year decline, the western monarch population is now less than one percent of what it was in the 1980s.” said Mace Vaughan with Xerces. “To give monarchs the best chance of recovery, we need to get nectar plants into the ground to sustain the remaining butterflies, and milkweeds to feed their caterpillars.”
While many of the conservation practices that NRCS recommends may target improving grazing lands or reducing soil erosion, simple tweaks to restoration plant lists or timing of management practices can yield big benefits for monarchs.
NRCS helps producers cover part of the costs for adopting these practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other Farm Bill-funded programs. NRCS accepts applications for conservation programs on a continuous basis. Producers interested in assistance are encouraged to contact their local USDA service center.