FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- One of the most well-known insects in the Midwest doesn’t mean you any harm.
We’re not talking about the mosquito, which devotes its days and nights to sucking the fun out of the outdoors. We’re talking about the swift-moving monarch butterfly.
This unmistakable insect may quietly pass through your property without leaving a trace, but it gets noticed when numbers start to dwindle as researchers say they have in recent decades. While backyard butterfly and pollinator gardens have become increasingly popular in an effort to boost habitat, some communities are adding extra emphasis to encourage residents to support the pollinators all the way from their summer homes up north, to their winter sanctuaries in Mexico.
For regional inspiration look no further than Fergus Falls, where Mayor Ben Schierer has again signed the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. The pledge outlines ways the city plans to support the butterfly. They’ve got 23 projects working to assist the monarch and pollinators in general. Pledges for 2021 in that city include adding habitat, changing city ordinances to promote milkweed/pollinator plantings, eliminating use of chemicals harmful to pollinators and creating art around the beauty of these fluttering bugs.
“We look to be a model of what is possible when our local government, schools, and private citizens work together to protect the habitat and raise awareness of the importance of monarchs and other pollinators,” Schierer said in a news release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Fergus Falls.
Schierer said the partnerships to make these projects possible do more than just good things for the environment.
"We've done it in a way that's also beneficial to taxpayers," he said.
An example of that is that the city has nearly 500 acres of parks that are mowed each time the Kentucky Blue grass reaches the right height. They've identified 100 acres of city property that could be transformed into habitat and avoid the fuel, manpower and equipment needed to maintain plain-old grass. They identified a spot at the local golf course that was difficult to mow, it's now what Schierer calls a beautiful sight that pollinators flock to.
The city has been a part of the pledge since 2017. A neighbor just over the border, Fargo, got on board with the program in December 2020. Part of Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney's action items for 2021 include looking at changing ordinances to use pesticides and insecticides that are not harmful to the monarch. That's a significant step after what was called a "monarch massacre" following aerial spraying for mosquitoes in August 2020.
Other communities largely in the metro area, Bemidji and Duluth have also been active in recent years with the pledge. Mayors who take the pledge commit to at least three of 30 action items meant to help the monarch butterfly. These actions include creating a monarch-friendly garden at city hall, converting abandoned lots to monarch habitat, changing mowing schedules to allow milkweed to grow unimpeded, and 27 other possible actions. City’s can still make a pledge through April 30.
In addition to the pledge this year, Fergus Falls has been designated as the first Prairie City USA through Wildlife Forever in St. Paul. The Prairie City USA program provides standards, certification, and outreach materials and recognizes communities that embrace their prairie heritage with plantings and other activities. The prairie program is being modeled after the more well-known Tree City USA program. On that note, Fergus Falls is also a member of Tree City USA and has been a member of the tree-loving club longer than any other city in Minnesota at 42 years.
The tree-friendly city sits on the edge of the tallgrass prairie, enjoying a variety of habitats that include forests and prairie among a smattering of lakes and rivers. Schierer looks at Fergus Falls as an ideal spot to improve habitat. There certainly is space to make a change there, but the entire state of Minnesota is part of the monarchs range, according to the Minnesota DNR.
Schierer encourages other communities to take on the pledge or just focus efforts on projects that improve the environment, while creating a cost-savings for residents.
"I think you have to think long term," he said. "If you are going to plant, it's going to take a few years, it's going to be different ... people will be opposed just because it's change."
He said that people that could care less about monarchs or their food supply can probably get behind a project that saves them money. While there is an initial investment to create these settings, they are changes that require less maintenance and less funds over time. Grant programs assisted the city in some of their projects, which they matched with in-kind labor.
Monarchs live in fields and parks where milkweed and native plants are common. Because monarchs feed on flowering plants, many homeowners are converting green grass to flowers to help the butterfly population. Each fall, monarchs, including those from Minnesota, migrate to wintering grounds west of Mexico City.
Molly Stoddard is an instructional systems specialist at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls and she can personally attest to the monarch’s migration skills as she visited Mexico to see the butterflies, many of which travel up to 3,000 miles to find rest there.
“I got to see millions of them in a small area,” Stoddard said. “It just impassioned me even more.”
She's been turning more and more of her west central Minnesota property into pollinator habitat and asks others to join her in planting milkweed and flowers to bring back the monarchs from possible extinction. Seeing the community get involved and embrace the monarch in art and plantings has been a heart-warming situation for her.
This year, as has been the trend for the last two decades, the monarch population showed a decrease. The yearly count of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico, released in January by the Xerces Society, continues to show a decline in this species. The count of 5.2 acres of occupied winter habitat is down 26% from last year’s count. Overall eastern monarchs have declined by more than 80% over the past two decades, according to the society, which tracks the annual migration.
The steps being taken in communities like Fergus Falls range from elaborate displays to small changes that only the bugs may notice. Some changes can actually mean less work and more time to enjoy the wildlife. Every patch Stoddard returns to native grasses and flowers is another spot she can let grow and not mow.
Stoddard points to Minnesota, western Wisconsin and eastern North Dakota as the heart of the eastern monarch's migration range. That puts a fair amount of pressure on this region to provide space for the monarchs.
Want to create your own butterfly biome?
The Minnesota DNR recommends the following plants that attract pollinators and create an attractive flower arrangement.
- Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
- Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
- Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera)
- Meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis)
- Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)