With $527,154 grant, Monarch Watch will train tribes to restore butterfly habitats on their lands

Monarch Watch's annual monarch butterfly tagging event is held Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, on the site of a wetland restoration project on the east side of Clinton Lake.

Kansas University’s Monarch Watch effort is getting more than half a million dollars to enable a butterfly version of the old “teach a man to fish” proverb.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced Monday that Monarch Watch would receive $527,154 for its “Building Tribal Capacity for Monarch Habitat Restoration” project. Roughly half the money is coming from the Wildlife Foundation and half from matching funds, including donations from Monsanto.

Monarch Watch in recent years has been largely focused on cultivating and distributing milkweed plants to help restore monarch butterfly habitats, said director Chip Taylor, a professor in KU’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

The “Building Tribal Capacity” project will train seven American Indian tribes in Eastern Oklahoma — whose lands are beneath the monarchs’ spring migration flight path — in habitat restoration.

“So this involves a lot of training,” Taylor said. “This is a kind of A to Z in terms of taking new groups of people who are interested in restoring habitat … through the whole process.”

Trainees will learn to plant donated milkweed plugs as well as collect, process, store and propagate seeds of milkweeds and native forbs, or flowering plants, according to a project description from the Wildlife Foundation. The project also calls for establishing seed production plots, creating demonstration plots and developing conservation plans, including site selection, preparation and long-term maintenance.

Monarch Watch has interest from even more tribes but more money would be needed to broaden the project beyond the seven signed up so far, Taylor said. “They’re very interested in maintaining the cultural contact with the landscape, and the landscape as it used to be.”

A majority of the U.S. monarch population migrates up to 3,000 miles to overwinter in Mexico, according to the Wildlife Foundation, which established the monarch fund in 2015. In the past 20 years, the North American monarch population has plunged from 1 billion to fewer than 60 million, due to factors including loss of critical habitat.

“The intensification of agriculture in the upper Midwest, the increase in cropland to meet the demands of the ‘ethanol mandate’ and the use of land for development projects have resulted in habitat losses exceeding an area the size of Texas,” Taylor said. “It is widely recognized that the monarch migration will decline further unless efforts are made to restore monarch habitats in critical areas such as eastern Oklahoma.”

Brett Begemann, president and chief operating officer of Monsanto, said in a Wildlife Foundation news release that the company is committed to helping monarchs “rebound.”

“We believe that commitment to environmental sustainability and land productivity are compatible objectives,” Begemann said. “To feed a growing population, we need to use all of the management practices available to increase agricultural productivity and make more land available for monarchs, bees, birds and other wildlife.”

The money going to KU is part of $3.3 million in total grants from the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund that the Wildlife Foundation announced Monday.

The list of recipients includes two other Kansas recipients.

The Burroughs Audubon of Greater Kansas City will receive $466,524 for a project to restore 1,400 acres of monarch habitat on public and private lands in the area, according to the Wildlife Foundation. Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition Inc. will receive $646,000 to work with private landowners and managers to develop conservation plans to benefit monarchs on grazing lands, with a goal of improving or creating 12,000 acres of habitat.

At KU, the newly announced grant is the largest of the three major funding sources for Monarch Watch, in addition to various individual donations, Taylor said.

This spring Monsanto funded — to the tune of about $180,000 — the purchase of 100,000 milkweed plugs plus a half-time salary for a person to handle orders and facilitate their distribution, Taylor said.

A similar amount of money from the National Resources Defense Council is funding another 100,000 milkweed plugs, Taylor said.