Courtesy Jane Breckinridge
Monarch butterflies stand to become endangered as their 3,000-mile migratory route is eroded by habitat destruction. Oklahoma tribes are working to provide them with a place to land as they journey between Canada and Mexico.

Oklahoma Tribes Restore Monarch Habitat to Save Beleaguered Butterfly

Kristi Eaton

Monarch butterflies will soon arrive in Mexico for the winter, but their annual journey south from the U.S. and Canada has gotten increasingly more difficult as their habitat shrinks by two million acres per year.

In an effort to stem this loss, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded a coalition of Native American tribes based in Oklahoma nearly $250,000 to help restore monarch butterfly habitat on tribal lands in the eastern part of the state. The tribes are working with Monarch Watch, a cooperative network at the University of Kansas dedicated to monarch habitat restoration, and the Euchee Butterfly Farm in Bixby, Oklahoma, to help restore the habitat whose loss has caused a drastic drop in the population numbers of the beautiful butterfly.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation created the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund in early 2015 to protect, conserve and increase habitat needed by the insects and other pollinators. Over the past 20 years, the monarch butterfly population has decreased significantly from one billion to fewer than 60 million, primarily because its habitat is disappearing at a rate of almost two million acres annually, according to Monarch Watch.

“It’s been neat to me…to see the leadership that the tribes are taking on this issue,” said Jane Breckinridge, project co-director and owner of the Euchee Butterfly Farm.

The Muscogee Creek Nation, the Chickasaw Nation and the Miami Nation have already pledged their support for the project and other tribes are showing interest as well, said Breckinridge, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.

“You don’t have to explain why you have to do this habitat restoration, they just want to know how to do it,” Breckinridge said of the tribes, adding that it is a very different reaction than what she receives when working with people outside of tribal communities. “When I try to explain why we need to take action now, there’s a real disconnect. When I’m dealing with the Native community, it just goes without saying. There is a cultural value that we need to respect the land and take care of it.”

Breckinridge said Oklahoma occupies a critical spot in the monarch migration journey. Each year, monarch butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles from the northern United States and southern Canada to their overwintering site in Mexico, and then return in the spring. The butterflies are currently on the southern migratory route.

“Somehow these butterflies make it all the way as far north as southern Canada and against all the odds, hundreds of millions of them making it all the way down to the wintering grounds,” she said. “It really is just remarkable and even, I would say, miraculous, so it’s going to be a shame if we lose it.”

Eastern Oklahoma plays a critical role in the fall as monarchs seek nectar to fuel the long journey to Mexico. It’s also a prime area for the production of first generation monarchs on the return journey, Breckinridge said.

The grant will help restore 350 acres of monarch and pollinator habitat in Oklahoma as well as focus on building capacity in the state for milkweed monarch and pollinator habitat restoration.

“Right now those resources just aren’t here in our state,” Breckinridge said.

The project aims to establish tens of thousands of milkweeds and native nectar producing plants on tribal lands.

“The project will provide the training needed to plant donated milkweed plugs, to collect, process, store, and propagate seeds of milkweeds and native forbs, and will include the establishment of seed production plots, creation of demonstration plots and the development of conservation plans, including site selection and preparation as well as long-term maintenance of restored properties,” said Rob Blumenthal, a spokesman for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The tribal coalition was one of several groups to receive grant money totally more than $3.3 million. Altogether, the money will go toward restoring up to 33,000 acres of habitat in areas that experts have identified as critical to monarch recovery, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“The tribes have an important role in the effort to restore monarch habitat,” Blumenthal said. “Tribal lands make up a significant percentage of total land in states the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund is prioritizing, and the participation of these tribes will further monarch conservation substantially.”

The project will also be tied into a small grant that the coalition received from the Monarch Joint Venture to train Native youth in horticultural skills, Breckinridge said.

One of Breckinridge’s main goals in creating a butterfly farm in Oklahoma was to increase opportunities for Native American youth to become involved in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“It’s kind of neat to me to be able to do this mixed in with this other project because you have these horticultural skills, which are very science-based, yet you’re also working on a foundation from the Southeastern Woodlands people of an agrarian history,” Breckinridge said. “So you’re incorporating very traditional values and history and culture with twenty-first-century skills, and to me that’s kind of really the ideal way to preserve culture and create opportunities for youth.”

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