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2020 Summer Review: Monitoring Habitat Across the Midwest

Nov 12, 2020


  • Conservation Stories

The Monarch Joint Venture collaborated with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) in both 2019 and 2020 to evaluate pollinator habitat restored through NFWF's Monarch Butterfly and Pollinators Conservation Fund. This year, two pairs of field technicians traveled across ten states between North Dakota and Ohio, visiting 120 sites in a variety of landscapes. At each site, technicians used the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program to survey adult monarchs, monarch eggs and larvae, flowering plants, and milkweed. They even met with some land managers and volunteers, following masking and social distancing guidelines, to teach them the monitoring protocol so they can continue monitoring in future years. 

The MJV will use these data to look at different metrics of success for these restorations, such as how many sites are supporting breeding monarchs and how much milkweed these projects contribute to national milkweed goals. Below you’ll find our first blog post of MJV’s “2020 Summer Review” and get a glimpse and what one of our field teams experienced. 

Written by Meghan Slocombe

Photography by Catherine Worley

This summer my field partner and I traveled across seven states throughout the Midwest. These lands ranged from tallgrass prairie in the suburbs of large cities to short grass prairies bordering cattle pasture and agriculture fields. We met landowners who have been lifelong advocates for environmental conservation, those who had just begun their journeys as conservationists, and even some who were simply wanting to retire and see their land returned to its beautiful native state. While there was diversity in just about everything we did, there was also consistency in what we saw at the sites. Yellow flower heads of black-eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta, and smooth oxeye sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, were dotted among the green stalks of the iconic common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Bumble, honey, and sweat bees flew among the nectar resources and an occasional monarch butterfly would bring a wave of excitement. Walking through these habitats is enough to make anyone feel lucky to work in the field of conservation. Yet, meeting with landowners and land managers made the experience all the more rewarding.

I entered the season cautiously, worried that the COVID-19 pandemic could lessen our ability to communicate with landowners. Instead, I was reminded of the passion and persistence of those who really care. As we stood in the driveways of landowners, a safe 6 feet away and each wearing our own home-made masks, it became clear just how much this land meant to each person. Some landowners were retired farmers, who had relied on the land to make their own living all their lives. Now they wanted to culminate their careers by converting the land into a community resource that would improve habitat for wildlife. For other farmers, planting prairie was a new opportunity for them to make money while also being able to contribute to land conservation. And yet still, some landowners were simply looking for native ground cover that might help them mitigate the encroachment of nuisance, invasive plants such as Canada thistle Cirsium arvense. Whatever the reason, landowners graciously met us to discuss their land. While some spoke of their wonderful experiences with land management personnel, others were interested in further guidance on how to manage the prairie plantings properly. 

While visiting some 80 NFWF-funded sites this summer, it was clear that whether it be through conservation monitoring or educational outreach, the program is bringing about a significant change. People are excited to talk about monarchs and feel that they are doing their own part to advance monarch conservation efforts. Over the past four months I’ve heard stories of large clusters of monarchs resting in landowners’ trees, of young children releasing butterflies after caring for their very own caterpillars, and had gas station attendants proudly point out their own pollinator safe havens on the edge of their property. This summer gave me the opportunity to become a part of this region-wide community, with each of us doing our part to conserve the monarch butterfly.

Sunset at Prairie Oaks Institute in Minnesota on one of our first nights of the summer field season.


Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming at a site in Minnesota.


Peak bloom of black eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta).


Honeybee on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).


Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) blooming at the Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch Prairie Preserve in Missouri. 


Coral hairstreak (Satyrium titus) on swamp milkweed.


A grasshopper pokes out from the leaves of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).


A monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) hangs precipitously while chomping on a common milkweed leaf.


A gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) hangs out on a common milkweed in Wisconsin.


A katydid rests on blooming tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) at George W. Mead Wildlife Area in Wisconsin.


Meghan takes in the view at Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin.


Common gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata) blooming at a site in North Dakota.


Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) blooming in Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.


Blue sage (Salvia azurea) blooming at a prairie remnant at the Plains Prairie Research Institute in Nebraska.


The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Article written by Meghan Slocombe. Photography by Catherine Worley.