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Fish and Wildlife Service putting $3.2 million into monarch habitat

Fish and Wildlife Service putting $3.2 million into monarch habitat

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WASHINGTON • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is putting $3.2 million into a public-private partnership to boost the population of the monarch butterfly, the head of the agency announced Monday.

It will give $1.2 million to a new Monarch Conservation Fund administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), that will also seek private donations. The NFWF was created by Congress more than 20 years ago to form private-public conservation measures. The National Wildlife Federation will also be involved.

Besides that grant, the FWS will devote $2 million to a program to enhance the growth of milkweed and other plants essential for pollinators, including monarchs and bees, on 200,000 acres of land administered by the FWS, and in 750 schoolyards and thousands of backyard pollinator gardens. It will include efforts to boost production of milkweed seeds, which FWS Director Dan Ashe said are in short supply.

Milkweed is a vital source of food and a reproduction host for monarchs as they migrate north from Mexican over-wintering grounds to Canada and the northern United States. The monarch's population has been steadily declining from a high of about 1 billion in the mid-1990s to an estimated 35 million last year, although surveys this winter indicate a 69 percent rise in the over-wintering grounds in western Mexican rainforests.

Last week, the Center for Food Safety, which opposes genetically modified agriculture, said Monsanto's Roundup herbicides and Roundup Ready crops was a major contributor to the butterfly's decline because it kills milkweed. Ashe said Monday that high corn and soybean prices have induced farmers to turn millions of acres of former grassland into crops, hurting the traditional prairie habitat that was home to milkweed and monarchs.

Monsanto officials have said they were working with universities and farm groups and others on the monarch population. Both Ashe and Collin O'Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said Monsanto would be a welcome partner in their efforts.

"The American farmer is not the enemy here," Ashe said. "Can the American farmer become a part of this solution? They sure can and I am sure they will be."

He said he expects the Department of Agriculture to join the partnership and try to enhance milkweed and pollinators public lands it administers, while using programs like the conservation reserve to build more habitat for the migrating monarchs. Ashe also said the FWS has been in discussions with utility and other companies to boost milkweed and other pollinating plants along their rights of way.

Much of the initial activity will be along the Interstate-35 corridor from Mexico to northern Minnesota, and will include "21st Century Conservation Corps" crews that will plant milkweed and other pollinating plants.

The FWS is in the second month of a year-long "status review" to determine whether the monarch deserves endangered species protection, which would give the government far greater powers to protect its habitat.

But Ashe told reporters here Monday that he did not believe the monarch population had reached a "critical tipping point," and that it's more important to build up habitat for this spring's migrating season.

"Right now, the important thing, because the butterfly population is so low, is to get the nation focused on building habitat," Ashe said.

He said anyone, including those with "postage stamp" back yards or urban rooftop gardens, can contribute to the habitat. O'Mara's National Wildlife Federation already has about 400,000 "wildlife gardeners." 

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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