West Virginia parks initiative creates monarch butterfly habitat

HENLAWSON, W.Va. — To the untrained eye, a hillside near the cabins at Chief Logan State Park looks like an unkempt weed patch.

To Lauren Cole, it looks like progress. More important, to a passing monarch butterfly, it looks like a great place to settle in for the summer.

Cole, the park naturalist, has spent the last two years trying to make Chief Logan a more attractive place for butterflies, honeybees and other desirable insects. She’s spent many an hour sowing seeds _ seeds that have transformed expanses of closely mowed grass into patches of wildlife-friendly weeds.

It’s part of what state parks officials call their Pollinator Habitat Expansion Initiative.

“The initiative involves two things,” Cole explained. “One is mowing reduction. The other is the creation of pollinator gardens.”

So far at Chief Logan, Cole has created 2-1/4 acres of pollinator habitat by planting three varieties of milkweed, several species of clover, ironweed, wingstem, columbine, joe pye weed and two-leaved toothwort.

Certain plants attract certain species. For instance, the two-leaved toothwort helps support the West Virginia white butterfly, a species imperiled by the introduction of garlic mustard, a plant that mimics a native mustard.

“White butterfly caterpillars can’t survive on the garlic mustard plants,” Cole explained. “They eat it and they just die.”

The bulk of the plantings, however, are designed to attract one of America’s showiest and best-known butterfly species – the monarch.

“Monarchs are a beautiful, really fascinating species,” Cole said. “They’re one of the few insects in the world that actually perform a migration. Here in West Virginia, we’re considered part of the ‘Monarch Highway,’ which extends from north of here down to Mexico, where monarchs go to spend the winter.”

Monarchs depend on milkweed to survive. They lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which serve as a food source for monarch caterpillars until they’re ready to pupate and transform into adult butterflies.

When small family farms were found all across the country, their weed-edged croplands contained all the milkweed monarchs could ever hope to have at their disposal. As the farms have disappeared, so have the milkweed patches. Monarchs have dwindled by close to 90 percent over the past decade and a half, and scientists have begun to fear for their future.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to investigate whether the species should be considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. According to the service’s website, the decision will be made by December 2020.

In the meantime, federal, state and local agencies are launching an all-hands-on-deck scramble to try to improve monarch habitat throughout the eastern and central United States. The Division of Natural Resources’ Parks Section is spearheading West Virginia’s effort.

Pollinator gardens have sprung up at parks throughout the statewide system. The Pollinator Habitat Expansion Initiative fits hand-in-glove with Parks Chief Sam England’s 2017 mandate to reduce by 10 percent the amount of labor-intensive mowing and weed-trimming that takes place each summer.

Cole said the effort began paying dividends almost immediately.

“Our first spring after planting the pollinator zones, we had monarchs and monarch caterpillars using the milkweed plants,” she added. “We have more this year. We’re seeing plenty of monarchs. It takes several years for (milkweed plants) to take hold and produce a lot of flowers and a lot of butterfly activity, but already we’re having success.”

The best thing about pollinator gardens, Cole said, is that anyone can plant them.

“You can purchase milkweed seeds from seed distributors,” she said. “We use three varieties – common milkweed, butterfly milkweed and swamp milkweed. Of the three, swamp milkweed seems to attract the most monarchs.”

Unlike most seeds, which germinate in spring, milkweed seeds should be planted in the fall.

“It takes a cold winter for the seeds to germinate,” Cole explained. “If you put milkweed seeds out in the summer, all you’re doing is spreading expensive bird seed. It’s worth the effort, though. Dedicate a few square feet of your backyard to this, and you’re going to make a difference.”

If nothing else, she added, West Virginians who plant a few milkweed seeds would be helping ensure the future of a state symbol.

“The monarch is our state butterfly,” she said. “If we’re not going to be concerned about the conservation of our state symbols, what are we going to be concerned about?”

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