By Marc Gray
In the years surrounding World War II, Aldo Leopold wrote about how our natural heritage was resigned to roadside ditches, cemeteries and other “odd areas.” Since the time of settlement, land conversion has been the status quo. My own ancestors were party to the complete redesign of the Virginia, and later, Missouri landscape. It’s part of the reason I became a Wildlife Biologist in the first place. This land has given us so much, it’s time to give something back. I began hunting at the age of 8 and have worked on everything from large mammals, down to diseases; which has given me numerous examples where several natural resource issues intersect. Many problems go away when animals have suitable food, water, shelter and space across time to meet their requirements. Pathogens are less common, predation risk all but vanishes and critical areas are buffered from outside events. Wherever you live in North America these days, there are local types of butterflies that need your help. Butterflies are indicators of a healthy system and react to changes faster than birds and mammals.
Vast prairies once stretched across the Midwest from the Great Lakes through the Dakotas to the Rockies and among the widely-spaced trees of savannas in the Southeast. Even the Northeast had immense heaths and glades that are all but gone today. The occupied range of prairie chickens, wolves, cougars, bison, elk and dozens of lesser-known animal and plant species was decimated. Only in my lifetime have eagles, beaver, otter, rattlesnakes, black bears and cougars begun to recolonize Missouri – many with assistance of state wildlife management agencies and an aging human population “moving to town” or otherwise off the land. These are the more adaptable fauna that are able to recover once government-sponsored removal campaigns were abolished. More needs to be done to encourage the recovery of more specialized wildlife. Everything really is connected and the time where we decide what natural communities look like in the future has come.
One of the latest concerns from the avian world is the marked decline of the bobwhite quail. Loss of native prairie and intensive farming practices has eliminated the “odd areas” quail rely on. Their chicks need insects produced by broadleaf plants (the same goes for wild turkeys). Quail were able to adapt for a time, benefitting from hedgerows while prairie chickens lost out; although they held on while farms were small. Quail are suffering significantly from the conversion of hayfields and pasture to fescue coupled with the bulldozing of hedgerows. In the East, the opposite is the case – too many trees. Butterflies share many of the same habitats critical to game animals, neotropical migratory birds and grassland birds. Waterfowl nest in the upland grasslands used by butterflies. When resident game bird enthusiasts decry roadside mowing or fund projects to create brood habitat, they are promoting butterflies. What are young birds eating in those forest openings touted by the ruffed grouse hunter or golden-wing warbler watcher? Insects. Caterpillars to be specific.
The excessive use of pesticides is putting the final nail in the coffin for natural communities. Reduced to fragments of their former habitat, these prairie remnants are subjected to over-management for conflicting objectives. The ironic thing is that many species depend on a natural fire regime that humans have disrupted but we need more fire on the landscape adjacent to remnants on restored sites. Use of prescribed fire too frequently has been raised as a concern to the already debilitated populations of rare butterflies and its use rarely considers the influence it has on non-migratory or primarily sessile butterfly species.While prescribed fire can be a welcomed stewardship tool, for rare butterflies (most of which do not migrate, unlike the well-known Monarch), it can spell disaster for an already-crippled population stuck in sub-optimal vegetation. The recommendation of butterfly biologists is that fire treatments be implemented in such a way as to minimize mortality of caterpillars, pupae and adults by burning only 1/4 to 1/3 of a site at any given time so as to provide adequate refugia to foster recolonization.
The factors impacting these populations are complex and hard to generalize across the entire country, but the story is well-documented for the tall grass prairie. Busting sod in 1850 was one thing. Our forebearers were striving for a better life and we owe a debt to them for that in one sense. However, there is little excuse for plowing native prairie in 2021. The tiling and draining that has gone on in the last fifteen years in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota is could have been prevented through adequate compensation or value added products that encourage native plantings. We should have learned from prior mistakes, learned from the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. As additional pressures are put on producers to grow more food for an increasingly urban and disconnected public, we have real challenges to face in our food system and the people who grow our food for that matter. Farmers are aging and even with an interest in farming the operating capital, equipment and land costs are driving the intensification of agriculture. It’s like we have begun a reaction we are unable to stop. Loss of natural spaces is detrimental to a variety of wildlife and working with private landowners is extremely important as Society expects all ecological services from clean air and water to carbon sequestration to fall on the good graces of producers. Even if a farmer wants to “do the right thing” as we so often hear in our circles, groups need to consider the bottom line of the operation. Too frequently, meetings take place about what will happen on someone else’s land – people who just happen to not be at the table. It will take innovative approaches to drive sound stewardship from now on. Butterflies offer a model for a common language and mutual goals. Tracking butterfly occurrence and trends can give us a standard benchmark from which to tailor management recommendations at multiple scales.
Most people have heard by now about how Monarchs have declined 90% over the last 20 years. Since the 1980’s, butterflies across the board have declined by half. This is directly linked to the loss of grasslands. The closed-canopy forests of 60-80 year old trees that cover much of the area East of the Mississippi outside of neighborhoods and shopping centers are poor wildlife habitat. Deer require browse with sufficient nutrients to aid reproduction and antler growth. Nature’s food plots are clearings in the forest where lush growth supports herds. The loss of grasslands from New England to Florida is staggering. While the core of the Monarch breeding range is centered over the modern Corn Belt, I argue that the breeding range has shifted west over time as the disturbance that comes with having land in production went away. You may not be concerned with (or have even heard of) the precipitous decline of butterflies, like: Poweshiek Skippering, Dakota Skipper, Pawnee Leonard’s Skipper, Regal Fritillary and Monarch but their decline is indicative of the entire system they depend on. We’re talking extinction here, folks. The Endangered Poweshiek Skipperling is down to just three known sites in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Dakota Skipper, listed as Threatened, is rapidly declining and will likely be lost if something is not done. The grasses and forbs critical for the life history of these butterflies are controlled with widespread herbicide use. Systemic and topical pesticides employed to control true insect pests are adversely impacting whole assemblages of native organisms. Extirpation of large mammals, namely bison and elk have removed major drivers of ecological function from the landscape. Butterflies are the canary in the coal mine for landscape-level impacts to the entire ecosystem. As the butterflies go, so go other wildlife you do care about.
With partners, Sustainable Monarch proposes creation of Sustainable Monarch Reserves to develop a series of protected sites with the intention of restoring ecological processes that these butterflies evolved with. The idea is to secure funding to create areas managed specifically for butterflies through a combination of conservation easements, cooperative agreements, accepting property donations and eventual fee title purchases. We are launching what, to our knowledge, is the first land trust dedicated to butterflies. The reserve effort will facilitate work on economic incentives from market-based solutions where local businesses and communities benefit from maintaining native plants on the landscape. The added value of creating products and jobs surrounding harvest of milkweed to create new milkweed patches, clothing, cosmetics and other items is a novel approach that compliments other initiatives by providing longer-term conservation than what is currently available on a large scale. Sustainable Monarch Reserves will serve as the anchor that other stewardship activities can be planned around to improve connectivity & create a dynamic ecosystem that gives monarchs the ability to move across the landscape within preserved corridors. Game species will come along for the ride because they must move across the landscape too and so many plants that they eat are pollinated by bees that benefit from plantings to encourage butterflies. Butterflies are a convenient measure of what is happening in the field. The critter of interest is not as important as the vegetative condition on the ground.