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As warm spring weather begins to transform Iowa’s landscape, grass becomes lush, trees regain their leafy splendor and flowers bloom. While green is spring’s signature color, green means something even more to your electric cooperative. Green is synonymous with environmental responsibility initiatives, and it’s something Iowa’s electric cooperatives take seriously. It’s our focus every season.

One of the electric cooperatives’ environmental initiatives – developing pollinator habitats – has created a lot of buzz among Iowans. Across the state, you may notice pollinator habitats sprouting up across landscapes. Whether they are located under electric cooperatives’ solar arrays, along roadways or across homeowners’ yards, there is a lot to be excited about with this conservation strategy.

Why are pollinator habitats so important?

Iowa is the center of the monarch butterfly’s breeding range. Unfortunately, the iconic monarch butterfly population has experienced an 80 percent decline in the past two decades.

The significant population decline of this beautiful and treasured butterfly stems from the loss of milkweed habitat, which is the only food source for the monarch caterpillar, loss of overwintering habitat in Mexico and extreme weather events.

In March, the World Wildlife Fund and the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) released its 2019-2020 overwintering monarch population report. Adult monarch butterflies covered approximately 7 acres of forest canopy in Mexico, less than half the area of last year’s population. Scientists estimate a long-term average of 15 acres of the occupied forest canopy is needed to sustain the eastern North America monarch population.

The news brings attention to ongoing efforts, say leaders of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium.

“The monarch butterfly population report is a timely reminder to continue implementing conservation efforts statewide,” says Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

Pollinator habitats include a diverse array of blooming species to provide nectar for adult monarchs throughout their full life cycle and their spring and fall migrations. The current Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy seeks to establish approximately 480,000 to 830,000 acres of monarch habitat in the state by 2038.

Iowa plays a vital role for monarch butterflies

“Iowa is in the heart of the monarch’s summer breeding range, and our state has a valuable role to play in providing diverse habitat for wildlife,” says Kayla Lyon, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “We have many dedicated partners with broad expertise working across Iowa to support habitat conservation for butterflies, birds, bees and much more.”

Being in the center of the monarch’s summer breeding range – approximately 40 percent of all monarch butterflies that overwinter in Mexico are estimated to come from Iowa and neighboring Midwest states – gives Iowans an excellent opportunity to help. Creating additional monarch habitat within cooperative service territories can play a major role in the recovery of the species and help to prevent it from becoming an endangered species.

Since monarch caterpillars need milkweed to survive, one of the primary conservation goals is to establish milkweed as part of healthy natural ecosystems. Areas of habitat, such as gardens, can be added near homes, schools, churches and within parks. Roadsides and rights-of-way offer miles of opportunities for monarch habitats.

For information on creating a pollinator habitat, visit the online resources noted in this article.

5 ways you can help monarchs

Each of us can do something to help pollinators. Simple acts, such as planting more pollinator-attractive flowers this spring, can make a big impact! Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers these tips:

  1. Take advantage of farm bill programs, such as the USDA Conservation Reserve Program, to establish monarch breeding habitat.
  2. Establish monarch habitat on your land as part of a demonstration project.
  3. Follow federal pesticide labels and state regulations when applying pesticides.
  4. Consider monarch-friendly weed management for roadsides and other rights-of-way.
  5. Establish a Monarch Waystation – a garden with both nectar plants and native milkweed species.

Visit ISU Extension to download details about the above tips and the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium to learn more about the conservation strategy.

How Iowa’s electric co-ops are actively helping to protect monarchs

Through the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, all the state’s electric cooperatives are members of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, an organization that is implementing a statewide strategy to protect the monarch butterfly in Iowa. As a community-led organization, the consortium works with farmers, private citizens and organizations to enhance monarch butterfly reproduction and survival. This effort is a natural fit for Iowa’s not-for-profit electric cooperatives, which collectively serve more than 80 percent of the state’s landmass.

The buzz on a new app!

At the end of this year, a critical milestone in the conservation of the monarch butterfly will be reached. In December 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will publish its decision regarding whether and how to list the monarch butterfly for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The USFWS is collecting data on monarch butterfly populations and the habitats that support them to help make this decision. The good news is an app has been created to tally this information.

HabiTally is an iOS mobile app, with an Android version currently in development, created by The Climate Corporation. It enables farmers, landowners and private citizens to record their monarch habitat data (while protecting personal privacy), and share the information with the USFWS to help with monarch recovery and other pollinator conservation initiatives.

It’s a place where everyone, including electric cooperative members, can contribute. As users add information to HabiTally, a tracker will report gains made in milkweed stems/acres across the U.S. and allow both better estimates of how much and where current habitat exists. Plus, it will help identify opportunities for further habitat development. 

Ann Thelen is the editor of Living with Energy in Iowa magazine.

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