Stakes driven into the grounds of the Chaska Town Course may become a common sight as its workers show their enthusiasm for a new conservation project: planting milkweed for the monarch butterfly.
Jim Lexcen, who is part of the seasonal maintenance crew at the public golf course, started planting patches of milkweed about 9 feet square after bringing the idea to supervisor Mark Moers.
“We’ve noticed a considerable decline in the monarch butterfly population here at the Chaska Town Course and thought since we have a large amount of natural areas already, why not try to improve the habitat for them?” Moers said.
The monarch population as a whole has plummeted in recent years. The World Wildlife Fund found that just under 2.8 acres of the Mexican forests where monarchs make their winter home were occupied by the butterflies over the 2014-15 season. That area is less than half of the winter average for the past 20 years.
In the United States, multiple organizations have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider classifying the monarch as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Wildlife Service decided last December to begin a yearlong review that could give protections to the monarch.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, and milkweed is the only thing that hatched caterpillars eat. Crop production, pesticide and herbicide use and changes in climate patterns have hurt much of the existing milkweed, while in Mexico logging has felled many of the oyamel fir trees that monarchs rely on for their winter homes.
Earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups pledged a combined $3.2 million to helping the monarch butterfly, mainly by planting milkweed and restoring habitat over a swath of 200,000 acres. Much of the focus will be on the 50 miles to either side of the I-35 corridor from Duluth to Texas. Chuck Traxler of the Wildlife Service said the eastern monarch population “pretty closely” follows that path on its way south.
For all the attention on the monarch, Traxler said, the milkweed project could have a positive impact for other species, too.
“The beauty of it is, when [people] do something to help the monarch, they’re helping out a lot of other pollinators as well,” he said.
And the Chaska Town Course is the kind of area that could benefit from milkweed.
Already, some 70 acres of 20 different wildflower and prairie grass species grow on the course, supervisor Moers said. Two varieties of milkweed were added to the mix this spring, he said.
Moers said that the milkweed plots would be integrated into the existing growth of wildflowers and that use of the course won’t be affected.
The project seems to be a natural extension of other conservation efforts at the course.
Moers has maintained a membership with the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for 15 years and has worked to complete four of the six certifications for having the town course designated a wildlife sanctuary.
Elizabeth Hustad is a Twin Cities freelance writer.