Conservation Projects: Milkweed, Monarchs and More
Last spring, Platteville resident and conservationist, Richard (Dick) Weber, sent a letter to the PCA explaining how he was considering which charitable organizations to financially support that year. In his note, he also lamented the declines he’d observed in his lifetime of milkweed and consequently, monarch butterfly populations that depend on this plant for survival.
He recounted his experience as a young boy during WWII collecting milkweed pods in support of the war effort. After the Japanese bombed Peal Harbor, the United States’ supply of kapok floss, a fiber used to fill life jackets (sourced from the kapok tree in the West Indies) was abruptly cut off. Dr. Boris Beckman in Chicago, discovered that milkweed floss would act as a superior substitute. Two large bags of milkweed pods would fill one lifejacket. Thus the slogan “two bags save one life” was created.
Dick and school children across Canada and 29 U.S. states east of the Rockies were armed with burlap sacks and tasked with collecting as many milkweed pods as possible. Dick says at that time it was easy to find milkweed pods in abundance. Highway crews were not mowing roadside vegetation as they do now, so he didn’t have to walk far to fill up a bag. Instructions issued from the US government said, “a satisfactorily filled bag should contain about 800 pods, for which the government will pay 20 cents when properly dried.” By the end of the war about 12 million pounds of milkweed pods were collected and sent via train to Petosky, MI for processing.
Milkweed loss from habitat conversion to cropland is one of the main causes of the sharp decline in monarch populations. During a trail tour, Dick noticed abundant natural space along the trail that might be prime real estate for milkweed, so he wanted to hear more about the PCA’s conservation efforts that might support milkweed and monarch populations. We at the PCA were happy to share our conservation plans with him that will undoubtedly help monarchs, but also support various other native flora and fauna that face threats by invasive species and habitat destruction.
Dick was fully supportive of our conservation and restoration plans and backed them with a sizable donation to the PCA in 2021 and 2022. Our oak savanna restoration project, “Grizzly Flats” mini prairie area and our ongoing removal of invasive species that allow room for planting native species will all support conservation of native flora and fauna, including monarchs. In December, we spread 15 lbs. of native seed (including seed mixes that contain various species of milkweed) in those restoration areas and along the trail where honeysuckle shrubs have been removed.
Overall, eastern monarch populations have declined more than 80 percent over the past two decades. This eastern population accounts for about 99 percent of all North American monarchs. They are now dangerously close to being added to the Endangered Species list. Monarchs are threatened by pesticides, climate change, illegal logging on migration routes and habitat loss.
We’re happy to do what we can in the PCA to give monarchs the help they need to rebound. Last September, we participated in the Monarch Watch Tagging Program– a large-scale community science project that was initiated in 1992 to understand the dynamics of monarch fall migration through mark and recapture. Tim Donovan, PCA volunteer and Ecology Committee member, captured and tagged two monarchs near the PCA butterfly garden. These captured monarchs received a unique sticker tag carefully placed on their wings and geographic location, sex, and date of tagging is recorded before releasing the butterflies.
While the recovery rate of tagged monarchs is low, the majority of recovered tagged butterflies are found in central Mexico and that data provides researchers with valuable information about monarch migration.
We plan to host similar tagging events open to the public in the fall of 2022.
Stay tuned to our website’s Events page to hear about other upcoming conservation related educational events open to the public!