Butterfly population dwindling in Iowa


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The monarch-butterfly population has experienced a sharp decline over the last decade, and people both nationally and in Iowa have taken notice.

“They’ve dropped down by more than 90 percent, and most of that drop has occurred in the last decade,” said Lincoln Brower, a research professor of biology at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. “This past decade has also coincided with heavy use of pesticides and herbicides in the growth of corn and soybeans.”

Brower said pesticides can be harmful to the insects and plants the butterflies require for survival.
Forever Green, a greenhouse in Coralville, works in the community to promote monarch-butterfly education and conservation.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve had a push to get rid of weeds, so there’s less milkweed growing out in the countryside,” said Forever Green owner Lucy Hershberger, said “What also is affecting them is that we’ve had issues with pests such as the Japanese beetles, [so] people treat all their plants with insecticides. When you spray an insecticide, it is not specific to one bug, it affects the butterflies, too.”

Brower, who also works with the Monarch Butterfly Fund, said losing a significant portion of the monarch-butterfly population is predicted to have negative effects on national biodiversity, because the butterflies are pollinators and responsible for the reproduction of many plants.

“I think this is a disaster in the making, and I think the butterfly is the canary in the minefield warning us,” Brower said.

He is part of a petition advocating for change in the methods of pesticides and the protection of wild plants.

“As you go outside of the prairie areas, which are not protected, the only areas where you see milkweed growing wildly is on the side of highways,” he said. “We are asking highway departments to go about seriously protecting those areas.”

He said with the right protection, these small patches of land could reverse the decline of the population.

Jessie Lowry, the conservation coordinator at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, said other problems, such as deforestation and land development, are plaguing the monarch-butterfly population as well.

“We have gone from a state that was almost entire covered in prairie to a state that has been converted for agriculture, cities, and roads,” she said.

To restore and create habitat for the monarch butterflies, Lowry directs a program at the Blank Park Zoo called Plant. Grow. Fly. With this program, the zoo encourages members of the public to build habitats in their backyards by supplying the necessary plants.

The program’s goal is to restore the population of monarch butterflies, along with other pollinators, who are also in decline and necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

“Pollinators are important because one-third of the global food supply depends on them,” Lowry said. “A lot of the plants that they pollinate also feed other animals in the wild.”

In Coralville, Forever Green also holds events on tagging, working to track butterflies as they migrate.

“We put a little identifying tag on the butterflies that we release so if someone finds a tagged butterfly, they can call Monarch Watch and report where they found that butterfly,” Hershberger said. “We’ve been able to establish where their actual migration routes are.”

Other organizations around the country specialize in butterfly tagging and conservation education, such as the Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas.

“The purpose of the tagging is to associate the location of capture with the point of recovery for each butterfly,” said Angie Babbit, the communications coordinator of Monarch Watch. “The data from these recaptures are used to determine the pathways taken by migrating monarchs, the influence of weather on the migration, the survival rate of the monarchs.”

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