Oklahoma Takes Its Backyard—and Roadside—Butterflies Seriously

Situated along the monarch’s migration corridor, the Sooner State is coming up with creative ways to save the imperiled pollinators.

A monarch butterfly in the Piedra Herrada butterfly sanctuary on a mountain in the Mexican state of Michoacan

Credit: Felipe Courzo/Reuters

A tourist information center can be a welcome site for weary travelers looking for a break from the interstate—a place to make a rest stop, to walk the dog, maybe pick up a few brochures. Or to lay your eggs, if you’re a monarch butterfly. Cross down from Kansas to Oklahoma and into Oklahoma City along I-35, and all these activities are encouraged at the visitor center near NE 122nd Street.

I-35 has been declared the “Monarch Highway” through a memorandum of understanding (or MOU) made between six states and the Federal Highway Administration in 2016. The recognition of that roadway’s importance to the monarch’s flight path is one result of an effort begun in 2014, when conservation groups and concerned individuals banded together to petition the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. While the petition did not yield the desired listing, the federal government and 16 states did form the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy (with 13 additional states also supporting the effort through the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife), committing to improving habitats for monarchs to preserve their dwindling populations. Oklahoma—an important stop on both the spring and fall migration routes—was a key member of that coalition.

Plight of the Monarch

The eastern monarch’s annual migration is a natural phenomenon spanning up to 3,000 miles between central Mexico and southern Canada. “Monarchs in other parts of the world do not do this migration,” says Cora Lund Preston, a communications specialist at the Monarch Joint Venture. The monarchs that finally make it back up north after the winter are three, four, or five generations removed from their ancestors that overwintered in Mexico’s oyamel fir forests. “It’s truly inspiring and amazing,” Preston says. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s so concerning that the populations are in such a steep decline.”

Two decades ago, scientists recorded nearly one billion monarchs in the forests of Mexico; today, that count has been reduced by nearly 90 percent. The population crash is tied largely to the loss of milkweed—the native wildflower that monarch caterpillars depend on for food. Scientists point to the skyrocketing use of glyphosate, an herbicide found in popular weed killers like Roundup, along roadsides and on croplands and pastures, which has reduced milkweed plants by nearly 60 percent. Overuse of other pesticides, including neonicotinoids, has also devastated monarch habitat, including the nectar-rich plants the adults feed on.

Monarch butterflies gathering to spend the winter in Michoacan, Mexico
Credit: iStock

Roadside Conservation

Through the MOU, states along the I-35 corridor, from Texas to Minnesota, have begun to respond to the crisis with creative strategies. The garden that now adorns the Oklahoma City Welcome Center is a tiny portion of that effort. The plot features five types of milkweed, native grasses, and wildflowers like black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers and is a registered Monarch Waystation. It’s managed by Oklahoma’s transportation department (ODOT), which has been partnering with Oklahoma State University (OSU) and the Oklahoma Monarch & Pollinator Collaborative (OMPC) to define its role in helping to restore butterfly habitat.

ODOT spokesperson Lisa Shearer-Salim notes, “ODOT has 130,000 acres of state rights-of-way” in its purview. “That is a lot of land for us to be a good steward of.” In the past two years, the department’s maintenance crews have focused on changing their mowing regimen, in order to preserve the milkweed that grows alongside both OK-51 and I-35 while still ensuring adequate visibility for drivers. This means doing what they call “safety mowing,” plowing just two narrow strips through the highways’ grassy shoulders (which can be up to 30 feet wide) from the time the monarchs begin laying their eggs until their caterpillars have hatched, usually around July 1. The roadside maintenance changes were recommendations by researchers from OSU, who are studying the impacts of different mowing schedules at 25 research sites along segments of OK-51 and I-35—plots about 50 feet wide by 360 feet long. “They have mowed each of the plots at differing times, and they’re out there taking counts of butterfly eggs and butterfly hatchings,” Shearer-Salim says of the project. “What we’re doing is based on preliminary results” of their research.

Kristen Baum, an associate professor of integrative biology at OSU, is part of the team that has been overseeing the highway plots for the past three years. “One of the advantages in Oklahoma is we do have a lot of good existing habitat or a lot of resources we can leverage if we just shift what we’re doing to provide more of a benefit for monarchs,” she says. “It’s certainly easier than having to start with creating habitat when you don’t have any at all.”

Workers maintaining a butterfly-friendly garden at the Oklahoma City Visitor Center Monarch Waystation
Credit: ODOT

Okies for Monarchs

ODOT may be one of the state’s largest landowners working to help the monarchs, but it’s not the only one. Okies for Monarchs, a citizen outreach initiative run by OMPC, is working to spread the word that any citizen with a small garden or even a few potted plants can help provide for the state’s orange and black passersby. The collaborative comprises more than 40 organizations and citizens working to conserve the butterfly, drawing together government institutions, environmental groups, Native American tribes, privately owned businesses, and residents interested in the cause. The group runs meetups, workshops, and other educational events geared toward helping people nurture the plants that butterflies need to breed and survive.

“Oklahomans across the board seem very interested in this topic,” says Mary Waller, director of OMPC. At a series of events this spring, Okies for Monarchs partnered with the state’s homegrown Hideaway Pizza franchise to host gatherings at its restaurants in Norman and Yukon, bringing in monarch experts who could answer gardeners’ questions. “We saw people from all sorts of towns and communities right around those cities, coming and talking and sharing, bringing friends and family, asking questions, taking notes,” Waller says. The group gave away native milkweed seeds, and Hideaway produced a honey-drizzled specialty pie, the Pollinator, which it sold from March through May as a fundraiser for Okies for Monarchs. (The group earned $5,000 from the effort and put the money back into milkweed seed and awareness events, Waller says.)

The OMPC is doing more than reaching out to passionate butterfly gardeners, Waller adds. It’s also working to identify Oklahoma cities along the flight path that don’t have many registered Monarch Waystations or have not signed the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, a multi-state effort between the United States, Mexico, and Canada whereby local governments commit to habitat conservation efforts for pollinators in their area.

“Our mission is to work in those communities that don’t have that much energy and advocacy going on already,” Waller says, adding that they’re currently targeting five new cities where better butterfly habitat management would go a long way toward helping the state’s winged visitors. One of the group’s key messages is the importance of maintaining and planting flowers that bloom at different times of the year. “The butterflies that came through Oklahoma in March and April could find nectar on the clover, dandelions, henbit, and phlox,” Waller says. “But then those that come back in the fall need nectar and fuel to get all the way back to Mexico.” To meet the needs of those southbound butterflies, “we need people planting mums, goldenrod, more things for those 45 days of flight,” she adds.

Many cities are already doing a lot for the struggling monarchs, Waller says. Organizations like the Oklahoma City Zoo, Sustainable Tulsa, and the Tulsa Zoo, along with master gardening clubs and nurseries that specialize in native and organically grown plants, are hosting events to educate citizens all along the butterfly’s flyway. One small town, Piedmont, even became a certified wildlife habitat community, Waller notes, after a large percentage of its residents signed up to take a pledge and plant a butterfly garden.

With conservation efforts throughout the state of Oklahoma, general awareness about the plight of the monarch is spreading, Preston says. “It’s one of these iconic species that everyone loves. It’s a really important species for that reason because it’s kind of a gateway to environmental conservation.”

Meanwhile, with the southbound migration about to begin, researchers like Baum are ready to observe the fruits of the state and citizen efforts to help the monarchs. In the gardens and along the roadsides of Stillwater, she says, “people are already reporting butterflies, so I need to get out there. We do a lot of research in the fall. And it’s about time to start.”

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