Historic Deal Preserves Millions of Pollination Corridors for Monarch Butterflies

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Monarchs are typically found in open areas during breeding season. They depend on milkweed to survive. Paul Roedding/Shutterstock

A huge swath of land that wasn't being fully utilized has been set aside for monarch butterfly habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the University of Illinois at Chicago have signed an agreement to create habitat for the butterflies on potentially millions of acres along rights-of-way and associated land. The agreement unites more than 45 companies in the energy and transportation fields and private landowners in the voluntary conservation agreement, according to the USFWS.

Although the side of the road might not seem an ideal environment for many species, it's perfect for butterflies and other pollinators. These miles-long buffers along highways and utilities "can support native vegetation, provide refuge for wildlife and connect fragmented habitat," says the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit organization. "They can support native vegetation, provide refuge for wildlife and connect fragmented habitat."

As part of the agreement, landowners will create and maintain parts of their land, carrying out conservation measures to reduce or remove threats to monarch butterflies. Although the agreement specifically focuses on monarchs, the measures are expected to benefit several other species, particularly pollinating insects.

The agreement is important because populations of both the eastern and western monarchs have dropped by more than 80% in the past 20 years. Possible reasons for the monarch's population decline include habitat loss at breeding and overwintering sites, pesticides, disease, logging, and climate change. The USFWS is scheduled to decide in December 2020 if the monarch butterfly will be classified as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Why endangered status matters

highway right of way with wildflowers
Highway rights-of-way can support native vegetation, offering lots of habitat for pollinators. SariMe/Shutterstock

When working on the agreement, some businesses and land managers were concerned what would happen if the monarch gained endangered status, reports Mongabay. They were worried that if they voluntarily created monarch habitat, then new regulations concerning the butterfly's new status would subject them to more rules.

"Some companies wanted to wait to see how the listing would play out," Iris Caldwell, a program manager at the Energy Resources Center at UIC, told Mongabay. "But if you are following what's happening with the butterflies you know we really can't wait. We need to be creating habitat on a variety of different landscapes, as much as we can."

Caldwell is part of Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group, a group of 200 organizations from private industry, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and education in the U.S. and Canada. The forum shares ideas and best management practices for creating and supporting rights-of-way for pollinators.

The new rights-of-way agreement is also covered by the USFWs Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) and Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). These are voluntary but formal agreements between the businesses and landowners and the USFWS that conserve at-risk species. With the CCAA, the landowners are assured that if the monarch is later listed as endangered, they won't be required to take more protective measures on their land.

"So they can just kind of go about business as usual. And if they happen to accidentally kill monarchs in that process, they won't be subjected to the under the endangered species laws," Tara Cornelisse, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Mongabay. "So, in turn, what they're supposed to do is give a percentage of those enrolled lands over to conservation."

Officials estimate that as many as 2.3 million acres of roadsides and utility lands may be involved in the agreement, becoming habitat for monarchs and other pollinators.

"This is a net benefit agreement," Timothy Male, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Policy Innovation Center, told E&E; News. "The butterfly is clearly better off with than without this agreement."