Ohio pollinator initiative takes on plight of monarchs

By John Hageman
Contributing Writer

Columbus — More than 380 people concerned about the nationwide loss of pollinators filled the Rhodes Exhibit Hall on the Ohio State Fairgrounds on Aug. 31 during the first Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative Symposium.

The goal of OPHI is to create and improve pollinator habitat in the state of Ohio, using the motto, “All you can, where you can.”

Areas suitable for native prairie pollinator vegetation re-establishment include CRP and WRP acreage; parks; road and railroad rights-of-way; school, church, and business properties; and golf courses, cemeteries, prisons, airports, fairgrounds, and backyards.

Dozens of habitat restoration specialists, equipment, prairie seed, and native plant vendors, government, and private conservation groups were also on hand to exhibit their products and offer expertise.

Presentations were made by national and local experts on the need to take immediate action to boost the Eastern monarch butterfly population to save it from extinction. Efforts to improve their summer and winter habitats, which are each in decline, and to protect them from pesticides, parasites, and predators were all discussed.

Their summer habitat requirement includes the availability of native milkweed, which is the only plant consumed by monarch caterpillars. Weed control through the use of glysophate and mowing along public rights-of-way have led to huge declines in the availability of these plant species within the monarch breeding range, which largely overlaps the North American Corn Belt.

At their winter hibernation site in the Oyamel Fir Forest of Central Mexico, logging and brush clearing by local villagers expose hibernating adult butterflies to severe weather events, such as the sleet storm of March 8-9, which killed between 50 and 80 percent of the population just prior to their spring departure northward.

Speakers included Charlie Wooley, Midwest Regional Deputy Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Pete Berthelsen, Director of Habitat Partnerships at Nebraska’s Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, Cora Lund-Preston, Communications Specialist for the Monarch Joint Venture; Gabe Karns and Claire Beck, wildlife researchers from Ohio State University; Sarah Fullenkamp, Conservation Specialist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Farm Service Agency; Mark Miller, from the Franklin Park Conservancy; and the symposia hosts, Scott Lucas, Operations Administrator with the Ohio Department of Transportation and Marci Lininger, wildlife biologist with the USFWS.

Whooley and Lund-Preston provided an overview for those unfamiliar with the monarchs’ plight. Berthelsen addressed the overlap between the habitat requirements of pollinators, upland game birds, and grassland song birds. Karns and Beck gave results of their investigations on pollinator use in electric utility and pipeline rights-of-way. Fullenkamp covered available landowner conservation programs. Miller listed beneficial pollinator species’ host and nectar plants, and Lucas reviewed ODOT’s highway mowing program.

Some highlights of the presentations included calculations from Berthelsen that 23,681,611 acres of native prairie were converted to agriculture from 2008-2011. This was mostly to accommodate more corn production in the upper Midwest, where 57 percent of the continent’s honey is produced from a greatly diminished honey bee population.

He presented his “3 Pillars of Prairie Re-establishment,” which included detailed instructions for proper site preparation that reduces competition with seed germination and establishment, selection of a good seed mix to provide a sequence of blooms throughout the season, and regular maintenance of the plots to repel woody encroachment.

Berthelsen and Lund-Preston both predicted the extinction of the monarch butterfly species in as few as 20 years if immediate action is not taken. Lund-Preston warned people to avoid the use of tropical milkweed species in southern climates, which encourages monarchs to keep breeding too long into the season. When they do, a parasitic spore Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (nicknamed O.E.) affects their health and strength, interrupting them from making the flight to their hibernation sites.

Miller provided a long list of pollinator host and nectar plants that home gardeners could use to attract and allow these beneficial insects to breed and feed, including annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees.

Some of the more recognizable ones that provide one or both of these functions include native milkweed, aster, lupine, coneflower, mints, clover, columbine, cardinal flower, Joe Pye weed, violet, and ironweed. Trees/shrubs include buttonbush, pawpaw, tulip tree, willow, and butterfly bush.

Beck made an eye-opening comment about her research observations. In the pipeline rights-of-way that she was monitoring this summer, peak flower and butterfly use was occurring just as it was being mowed in mid-August.

This is a sobering observation that should have ODOT vegetation specialists and utility right-of-way managers re-thinking the timing of their mowing efforts. This summer, mowing was delayed until mid-August in counties participating in pollinator establishment.

July 16 and Aug. 1 have each been mowing dates deemed late enough for upland game birds and waterfowl to be finished with nesting, but to protect blooms and butterflies, it appears that either date is too soon.

Based upon this revelation, milkweed plantings being established to provide monarch egg/caterpillar host plants in these rights-of-way will essentially become death traps unless mowing is delayed longer – perhaps until October.

Another (not too surprising) observation indicated that wider rights-of-way were more productive than narrower ones.

Fullenkamp thoroughly covered the federal and state conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in Lake Erie, Walnut Creek, and Scioto Valley but pointed out that CRP enrollment nationwide is almost maxed out to the Farm Bill authorized cap of 24 million acres.

The recent addition of Conservation Practice, CP-42 was specifically designed for pollinator plant establishment. CP-38 is called the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement and establishes native prairies in Ohio’s traditional pheasant range.

While reviewing ODOT’s new mowing strategies, Lucas reminded the attendees that the county engineers need to hear from them expressing their support for delayed mowing and roadside pollinator establishment to counter complaints that they get from people who prefer a mowed landscape.

He is preparing his public information officers by offering them a script to use when fielding complaints about the delayed mowing, seeking buy-in by the other agencies such as Ohio’s EPA and Department of Agriculture, and partnering with Ohio Division of Wildlife, Pheasants Forever, the USFWS, Dawes Arboretum, and the state’s soil and water conservation districts.

He highlighted projects underway in Darke, Ross, Fairfield, Licking, Auglaize, Hamilton, Preble, Allen, Wyandot, and Defiance counties.

There is a statewide effort underway to collect milkweed seed pods for planting next spring. The general public is invited to assist by turning in mature common milkweed seed pods until Oct. 30 to any county soil and water conservation district office, labeled with the collection locations.

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