By Nick Simonson
The combination of this winter’s rise in migrating monarch butterflies – around 300 million of them as reported in January by WWF Mexico in their annual estimates – and the desire for the establishment of diverse habitat on marginal lands which sustain the popular pollinator species along with other watchable wildlife and game species, has spurred interest in plantings that benefit all creatures. While monarchs and honeybees may be at the forefront of the creation of places big and small for pollinators, the re-establishment of plants such as milkweed and other wildflowers in addition to grass plantings is a boon to all wildlife. As a result, the addition of flowering plants is becoming a sought-after conservation option for landowners and sportsmen looking to add to their habitat efforts for upland game.
Urban and Rural
Pollinator plantings have become increasingly popular in urban settings as cities, schools and private individuals have taken an interest in helping butterflies and bees recover from a noted downswing in their populations and rebound from other modern impacts to their collective health, such as herbicide drift which has decreased milkweed stands throughout the country. Through the creation of pollinator gardens, individuals are contributing to the well-being of these species that are vital to the continuation of plant life, the diversification of habitat, and ultimately larger creatures’ survival throughout the region.
David Dewald, President of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation and the Lewis & Clark Wildlife Club, relays that interest in plantings around the Bismarck-Mandan area is increasing and a number of efforts are underway locally to not only establish pollinator plantings, but also catch the attention of the public as to the important role butterflies and bees play in nature.
“There’s interest where people want to do something in their backyards, and there’s some interest in the city,” Dewald relates, “the new riverboat project of the Lewis & Clark foundation is going to have a pollinator planting, and we’re working with a landscape architect on that,” he continued.
The Lewis & Clark Wildlife Club has championed a number of pollinator projects at schools, local businesses and community facilities over the past several years and has coordinated the creation of monarch planting packets with the help of the North Dakota Game & Fish Department for citizens to sow in their own backyards, increasing options for butterflies and birds in the urban and suburban landscapes.
Outside of the city limits, the incorporation of pollinator planting into producers’ agricultural efforts throughout North Dakota is on the rise, according to Sarah Hamilton-Buxton, Partner Biologist with National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation. Through that partnership, she works to facilitate pollinator conservation on the private lands of producers throughout the state.
“There’s certainly a big push in the media these days, pollinator conservation and the decline of pollinators is being talked about a good bit, so that is increasing awareness; on top of that, as of 2008, pollinator conservation has been written into the Farm Bill, so that has helped create incentives for landowners to do pollinator habitat restoration on their lands,” Hamilton-Buxton said.
In a more rural setting, pollinator plantings of a couple of acres are considered to be of good size and there are some CRP plantings in the past that have been geared toward pollinators with more diverse plant species. Those typically contain more flowering plants and forbs, which benefit pollinators but also help provide upland game with the attraction of insects which are eaten by growing chicks for the protein needed for their early development.
“There’s a variety of NRCS practices that a producer could walk into an office and sign up for; that could go anywhere from a planting specifically designed for pollinators, or it could be something as simple as they want cover crops and they could add a few blooming cover crops to that seed mix, it could really run the gamut, it’s just a question of getting more flowers out on the landscape to provide habitat and resources for pollinators,” Hamilton-Buxton related.
Uplands & Beyond
With the creation of separate pollinator plantings, the addition of forbs and wildflowers to standard conservation plantings, and the use of flowering cover crops in fields of row crops such as corn, butterflies like the monarch aren’t the only beneficiaries of the recently-demanded diversity. The king of all upland game birds – the ringneck pheasant – along with many other upland species, small game, mammals and songbirds gain from the addition of these plants to the landscape. The popularity of pheasant hunting has helped drive conservation, especially for Pheasants Forever (PF). More and more of the organization’s habitat improvement and restoration efforts have turned to incorporating wildflower and forb components to help build stronger bird populations on limited marginal areas. According to Tanner Bruse, a PF Agriculture and Conservation Program Manager, it comes down to a matter of recruitment.
“There’s been a growing demand, and we view high-quality habitat as pollinator habitat, and great brood-rearing and nesting habitat,” Bruse explained, as to the organization’s stance on diverse plantings, “with the beneficial results once you get the pollinator habitat on the ground also comes the insects, which are very important this time of year especially for the chicks and brood rearing,” he continued.
While including wildflowers might initially be an afterthought for many producers, Bruse explained that landowner excitement increases year after year as the plantings take hold. He related that the establishment of wildflowers spurs greater interest in the species of plants and the identification of them through wildflower guides and more personal investment in the well-being of the land. It is a trend among landowners he has witnessed first-hand and expects it will grow in the future as the aesthetic enjoyment of an elongated blooming season becomes yet another bonus in the diverse planting process for producers across the upper Midwest.
“It’s still continuing to rise in popularity, one of the big things is going to be where the direction of the Farm Bill goes and the CRP program,” Bruse explained, “there’s several different focuses: water quality being one big one right now, you can throw soil health in there with that, but then also pollinators; obviously there’s so many programs and only so many dollars, so it will be interesting to see what direction it goes…but there will be a continued need and continued push for pollinator habitat,” he concluded, stressing the benefits go beyond bees and birds.
As a new generation of monarchs prepare for their southern migration at the end of the summer, they and other butterflies will benefit from the noted increase in and growing demand for milkweed and other flowering plants which help sustain them in both rural and urban settings. It too is likely that hunters will benefit as well from such plantings with a new crop of pheasants emerging from the undergrowth in the coming weeks to once again trigger the annual chase across the uplands of North Dakota this autumn.
Featured Photo: A monarch dries its wings in the morning sun while perched atop a milkweed plant. Simonson Photo.