Save the monarchs!

Illinois Farm Bureau joins other ag groups in 20-year program to sustain essential insects like butterflies, honeybees

Monarch butterflies need to be sustained along with other essential insect pollinators key to the agriculture industry. (Wikimedia Commons/Kenneth Dwain Harrelson)

Monarch butterflies need to be sustained along with other essential insect pollinators key to the agriculture industry. (Wikimedia Commons/Kenneth Dwain Harrelson)

By Ted Cox

Long live the monarchs — or else suffer the consequences in agriculture.

The Illinois Farm Bureau led a host of other state agriculture groups in releasing an ambitious, 20-year plan Tuesday to promote and sustain the population of insect pollinators essential to the industry — with a focus on the monarch butterfly.

The Illinois Monarch Project released a 20-year Agriculture Action Plan Tuesday calling for the state to add 150 million stems of milkweed by 2038, as well as other nectar sources such as wildflowers, in order to grow and sustain the population of migrating monarch butterflies, as well as other pollinators key to farming, like honeybees.

Monarchs need milkweed for their caterpillars to feed on, and nectar as a food source as adults as they migrate over 3,000 miles to and from their winter grounds in Mexico.

Created following a Monarch Butterfly Summit held in Springfield in 2016, the IMP includes the groups like the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Illinois Corn Growers Association, the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Milk Producers, and Illinois Pork Producers, as well as state agencies like the Department of Agriculture, with the state Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency also involved.

They’re all behind efforts to promote and sustain the monarch population, as it’s declined to the point where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned to declare it an endangered species. The Obama administration also added honeybees to the equation, as they too have suffered population losses. Bees, of course, and other pollinators are key to many farm industries, and milkweed and wildflowers are also key to other beneficial insects that control the spread of destructive insects.

“We believe proactive solutions that involve farmers and the agricultural community are the only way to meet ambitious conservation goals,” said Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. in a story posted Tuesday on the IFB website. “Pollinator habitat is on everyone’s mind, and I want to compliment the county farm bureaus and our members for taking a leading role and for all they’ve done on their own farms to support pollinators.”

The 20-year state plan is part of a two-prong approach including interstate agriculture agencies as well in a multi-state flyway plan that proposes adding up to 1.8 billion new milkweed stems or 29 million acres of milkweed by 2025.

According to the IMP report, Illinois has the second-most monarch “way stations” in the nation, behind only Texas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already created a Conservation Reserve Program to encourage the creation of areas that help sustain monarchs on their migration and other insects, and Illinois saw its total area devoted to the CRP grow 300 times from 2012 to 2018, trailing only Iowa in the adoption rate.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, the area occupied by wintering monarchs has steadily declined over the last 20 years, although it rose this past winter to more than 6 hectares. Goals are to sustain that figure going forward.

The IMP plan urges farmers to plant milkweed, alter their mowing to leave roads’ right-of-way to grow wherever possible — a policy also to be followed by IDOT — and to watch pesticide use, again to preserve areas that sustain monarchs and other beneficial insects. The groups will also be joining in public outreach, including making presentations in schools.

The plan quoted Kankakee County farmer Jeff O’Connor as saying: “We have decreased the frequency of mowing roadsides and delayed when we mow certain areas. I believe most farmers could easily delay mowing select road ditches. Small changes by many people can add up to a major positive impact for monarchs.”

“Now the work begins to implement our strategy and continue to build important partnerships in agriculture to get it done,” Guebert said. “Illinois agriculture has been a leader on the monarch issue and will continue to play an important role in the future.”

Ted Cox