A coalition of six state transportation agencies are working together to help monarch butterflies on their migratory journeys by establishing a continuous “Monarch Highway” stretching north-south along Interstate 35.
Departments of Transportation in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas are working to improve habitat along the corridor in each state. The state agencies along with the Federal Highway Administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding in the spring of 2016 in which they pledged to collaboratively implement pollinator habitat best practices and promote public awareness of the need to conserve pollinators. The agencies have agreed to develop educational materials together and assist each other as they “inventory, protect, plant and manage pollinator habitats and develop strategies for pollinator-friendly seed mixes.”
Actions to preserve monarch butterflies are becoming more vital. The species has declined by 80 percent over the past two decades due to factors such as habitat fragmentation and herbicide decimation of milkweed plants, which are its larvae’s only food source. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must determine by June 2019 if the monarch butterfly should be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If the species is listed, its presence throughout the I-35 corridor would trigger additional requirements for federally-funded projects.
“We all are already carrying out practices that benefit pollinators such as reduced mowing, targeted herbicide use, and planting native vegetation seed mixes,” said Tina Markeson, the Monarch Highway Project Chair and Roadside Vegetation Management Supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). “But having a multi-state effort brings added benefits.”
One of the key benefits, she said, is the ability to apply for grants as a group, which is attractive to funders looking for broad impact. Also, each state is better positioned for individual grants due to the inherent credibility that comes from participation in a collaborative project. Yet another benefit is the opportunity to discuss what works and what doesn’t. The single message focus also gives added clout and enables common educational materials to be developed at less cost.
Stepping Up Existing Efforts
Individual states have not received specific funding for their Monarch Highway work, nor is there external financial support to administer the initiative, said Markeson. However, participants will be tweaking or stepping up what they already are doing. Her agency, for example, has been planting native seed mixes for about 25 years. Though more expensive than non-native mixes, native plants offer multiple advantages, such as strong root systems for erosion control and water filtration, strong stalks that act as snow fences, and reduced long-term maintenance costs.
To create a baseline and determine what is needed next, each state is carrying out an internal analysis of its own current practices along I-35. Potential actions by states may include:
- adding or increasing milkweed in seed mixes;
- cutting back mowing;
- increasing plantings in targeted areas to reduce habitat fragmentation; and
- carrying out prescribed burns as a vegetation maintenance tool.
Geographic differences also will affect individual state approaches. In Minnesota, for example, the I-35 corridor includes deciduous and coniferous forest as well as prairie. One component of its approach will be to assess its current stock of flowering trees and shrubs and make pollinator-friendly adjustments as needed. And some of its educational materials will include a reminder that other types of vegetation, not just wildflowers, are part of the solution.
The six-state group plans to step up its collaborative efforts to include regular teleconference calls and annual face-to-face meetings. The Monarch Highway Project Chair position likely will change every two years and by-laws will be developed. Rest areas likely will be the initial focus, with demonstration plots and educational materials made available in all six states. A mock-up of a logo is being circulated for comment, and funding opportunities are being actively explored.
To magnify their work, all six states are working in partnership with other state agencies as well as nonprofit groups. For example, Markeson said her agency is working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Water and Soil Resources to coordinate requests for the 30 different types of seed mixes it uses across the diverse biomes found throughout the state. And in Texas, which is responsible for almost double the number of I-35 miles found in the other states, TxDOT will draw on existing resources such as the Texas Monarch and Native Pollinator Conservation Plan.
History of Initiative
Multiple government actions have provided strong justification for the initiative. In 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum calling for increased federal agency efforts to preserve declining pollinators. The following year, the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators was released. Both documents call out the I-35 corridor as a key focal point.
In addition, in 2015 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and U.S. DOT partnered to sponsor a summit of state transportation leaders to advance pollinator habitat. And the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act contains provisions for the U.S. DOT, in conjunction with willing state DOTs, to encourage habitat development for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. In addition to these national measures, state-specific directives call for reversing pollinator decline, such as Executive Order 16-07 issued by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton in August 2016, followed by Executive Order 19-28 issued by Gov. Tim Walz.
While these recent actions have helped to create a strong framework, the roots of the Monarch Highway project actually date back several decades to another I-35 initiative. In 1993, the FHWA provided funding to the same six DOTs to create the Prairie Passage Program, with I-35 as its backbone.
Despite the pluses, Markeson said, Monarch Highway participants likely will face several challenges as they pick up the pace in 2017. First, while they already are carrying out pollinator-friendly practices, factors such as additional staff time and a greater proportion of native seed mix investments could add to costs at a time when some state DOT budgets are shrinking.
An additional obstacle may be that of ensuring continued commitment to maintaining the good work once it is in place. As Markeson explained, “It tends to be easier to find funding for planting than it is for maintenance. We have to make sure that what we are doing will be sustained.”
Yet another challenge may be to fully account for the effects of altering current practices, especially in terms of agricultural interests. For example, some farmers who use roadside mowings for cattle feed have raised concerns about including milkweed in the seed mix.
Advice for other DOTs
To maximize chances for success in a multi-state initiative such as the Monarch Highway, Markeson offered four tips:
- Find an internal agency champion if possible; in this case, MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle has been an outspoken proponent;
- If there is a related initiative from the past that can help provide a foundation, draw upon it;
- Continue to exchange information with the other states to build on successes and lessons learned; and
- Develop and maintain close communication with materials providers, in this case native seed mix producers, so that they have the incentive to develop such mixes and have them available when needed.
What’s Down the Road for the ‘Monarch Highway’?
The ultimate goal is a cost-effective, thriving transportation corridor that serves the needs of both its human and its pollinator species travelers. But ultimate success for pollinators will depend upon a much larger realm of supporters than just these six agencies.
“Many others need to be involved as well,” Markeson said. “We will be doing our part, but dedicated efforts should be underway across the country as well as up into Canada and down into Mexico. The rewards on many levels are indisputable.”
For more information, contact MnDOT’s Tina Markeson at [email protected] or access the Monarch Highway memorandum of understanding. Information on additional transportation-related efforts to protect pollinators are detailed on the FHWA’s Pollinator web page.