Help your farm by helping pollinators

It is easy to dismiss the growing concerns about declining pollinator populations as overreaction, activism-driven or “not-my-problem.” And, these things may all be accurate, though legalities may be changing the situation in the near future.

Steam is building behind an effort to expand protection for a beloved North American pollinator — the monarch butterfly. The monarch is not currently listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or protected specifically under U.S. domestic laws. But, in early 2016, two environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety originally petitioned for the monarch’s protection in August 2014. In December 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched an official review of the butterfly’s status but has not yet issued a final decision.

The 2016 lawsuit is forcing the agency to move forward on a final decision on the monarch’s protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will either propose protection under the Endangered Species Act, reject protection under the Act, or add the butterfly to the candidate waiting list for protection.

“We can’t force them to protect monarchs but we can force them to make a decision,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups behind the lawsuit.

If the monarch is deemed worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act, those involved in agriculture who once thought otherwise, may quickly discover that the butterfly is indeed their problem.

“Pollinators do a lot of work for farmers. Whether it is a bumblebee, butterfly, sweat bee or beetle, they are helping produce food. If we are losing pollinators we are losing parts of our food supply,” said Marci Lininger, transportation liaison for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and coordinator of the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative (OPHI). “And we don’t want any pollinator to be federally listed. The monarch is being petitioned to be federally listed and some bumblebees are being petitioned as well. That is a wake-up call for us, not just in Ohio but nationwide. That tells us we have work to do. We need to establish more things in our landscape to provide pollen and nectar and host plants for pollinators.

“A monarch federal listing is scary. It will impact all Ohioans. There will be a chain reaction of events. There will be restrictions for private landowners like mowing restrictions and herbicide and pesticide use restrictions. We’ll see a lot of lawsuits.”

If listed, it will be illegal to intentionally kill monarchs or modify their habitat without a permit. Listing will also lead to designation and protection of areas deemed “critical habitat.” In addition, federal scientists will develop a recovery plan to guide efforts to restore long-term, healthy populations of monarchs.

“Ohio has been selected to be a priority state for monarch butterflies because we get the fourth generation of the Monarch butterfly born here. That fourth generation completes the migration process for monarch butterflies so that next first generation can be born,” Lininger said. “We are in the migration path and we have monarchs heading north and going back south. We have a lot of responsibility here in Ohio to provide habitat for monarchs. We need to change something in our landscapes. We need to create and protect enough habitat to prevent listing. If everyone does all they can, where we can, we can help divert a potential listing of the monarch.”

There are several ways Ohio agriculture can voluntarily address the problem of declining monarch butterfly populations.

“There are lots of programs available through the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Ohio Department of Agriculture,” she said. “I highly recommend that you reach out to the local Soil and Water Conservation District to find more information about the programs. Those groups are the first places to check for assistance in funding and cost share programs to help with pollinators.”

There are efforts underway in working with the Ohio Department of Transportation to establish important host plants in ditches and along highways to reduce mowing, and there is a program to collect seed and re-establish pollinator plots in a wide variety of settings.

“We need work in urban and suburban areas using parks, golf courses, cemeteries, airports and backyards. We are promoting cover crops, using fencerows, management of herbicides and pesticides and establishing beneficial plants in fencerows in rural areas. These habitats also work well with Pheasants Forever,” Lininger said. “For the Milkweed Pod Pilot Project, we started collecting pods as a pilot program. Last year, milkweed pods were dried and sent to Marion prison to process. They grew them in plugs in a greenhouse and provided 2,300 plugs last year.”

Again this year, the OPHI in cooperation with Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Districts is organizing a statewide milkweed pod collection starting Sept. 1 and ending Oct. 30. During September and October, everyone is encouraged to collect milkweed pods from established plants and drop them off at the nearest pod collection station.

Here are some tips from OPHI:

• To collect the seed pods from a milkweed plant, it is best to pick them when the seed inside is brown. Do not collect pods when seeds are white or cream colored. If the center seam of the pod pops with gentle pressure, they can be picked.

• It is best to collect pods into paper bags or paper grocery sacks.

• Avoid using plastic bags because they attract moisture. Store seeds in a cool, dry area until they can be delivered to the closest pod collection area.

• Harvesting pods from milkweed plants does not have any effect on the population of milkweed in established areas.

• All milkweed pods collected during this time will be processed by OPHI partners and all of the seed collected will be used to establish new plantings and create additional habitat for the monarch butterfly throughout Ohio.

• Dress appropriately when collecting seeds, including gloves.

• The majority of Ohio counties have a Milkweed Pod Collection Station, with most of them being located at the local Soil and Water Conservation District office.

Then, in terms of establishing plots, it is important to plan ahead as pollinator plantings require consideration of species and site selection, site preparation, planting, and maintenance. The native plants (including milkweed) are not quick to establish and flower. It is important to be patient while native plants slowly emerge and set deep roots to pull moisture for the toughest growing conditions. Weed control of invasive species is one of the most challenging and important parts of establishing a successful pollinator planting. Pollinator plantings can range in size from a couple hundred square feet to a couple hundred acres.

NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help Ohio’s farmers plant milkweed and nectar-rich plants along field borders, in buffers along waterways or around wetlands, in pastures and other suitable locations. NRCS also helps producers manage their pastures in ways that increase critical populations of milkweed and nectar plants.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and remaining funds from the former Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) provide funding for this work. Additionally, NRCS is offering support for related enhancements through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to establish monarch habitat.

NRCS accepts EQIP and CSP applications from producers on a continuous basis. Farmers interested in participating should contact their local USDA service center to learn more.

Additional information can be learned at the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative Symposium in the Rhodes Center at the Ohio Expo Center on Wednesday, August 31, 2016. For more on the symposium call Scott Lucas at 614-644-6603.



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