Colorful monarch butterflies have largely disappeared from the vast St. Croix River watershed, but the National Park Service has launched an all-out effort to bring them back.

“The whole idea is to create a mosaic of pollinator-friendly habitat,” said Chris Stein,  superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. “We’re trying to make a difference in this landscape of more than 800,000  square miles. We’d like to serve as a model for the rest of the country, frankly. If we can do it in the St. Croix Valley, it can be done everywhere.”

The regional “Monarch Corridor” initiative — intended to harness participation from potentially thousands of people — rides on the wings of a butterfly that has become a symbol of a widespread loss of pollinator habitat. The monarch is just one of many pollinators such as bees, beetles, bats and hummingbirds, but there’s a belief that its fluttering grace stirs people to action like no other pollinator.

“They’re beautiful and people have a familiarity with them,” said Jonathan Moore,  the St. Croix Riverway park ranger coordinating the project. “Monarchs are an incredibly charismatic and iconic species.”

Their numbers have dropped sharply in recent years, all but erasing  them from the watershed that feeds the St. Croix and its principal tributary, the Namekagon River  in Wisconsin. They winter in Mexico.

Improving habitat for monarchs will help all pollinators, Moore said, and raise public awareness of the urgency of restoring milkweed and other forms of habitat.

“We’re at a critical point that we need to do something to save it,” he said.

What about pesticides?

The Monarch Corridor project doesn’t delve into the sensitive national debate over pesticide use, but instead is aimed at inspiring people to take action in their backyards, in city parks, or on public land “to inspire tangible action.”

Laurie Schneider  of the Pollinator Friendly Alliance  in Stillwater supports the Monarch Corridor initiative and said the riverway is “a really smart geographic location in terms of drumming up support” because so many like-minded people live along the river.

“Chris is very good at that,” she said of Stein. “If anyone call pull it off, he can.”

But she said any campaign to reverse the decline of pollinators must include education about pesticides, especially a class of them known as neonicotinoids,  which have been implicated in the global decline of honeybees and other insects. People should be encouraged to buy “pollinator friendly” seeds and plants free of neonicotinoids because, she said, pollinators produce two-thirds of the world’s food.

“The pesticide piece is, my opinion, the most important,” Schneider said, because spraying “will make the pollinators  get sick and die.”

She also said that “  it’s going to take our country a number of years before this pesticide is banned. We’re going to continue to see declines, particularly in monarchs. When people can no longer get strawberries or almonds or melons or squash, then they’re really going to start paying attention.”

This spring, Minnesota’s nursery and landscape industry successfully pushed for a change in state law that allows nurseries to advertise a flower as being good for bees and butterflies as long as it’s not toxic enough to kill them after one sip of nectar or single load of pollen. Garden plants labeled “pollinator friendly” no longer must be free of insecticides.

The NPS can’t lobby for a pesticide ban, Moore said, but intends to do what rangers do best — educate people about the loss of pollinator habitat.

Already, at least 50 organizations have joined the Monarch Corridor cause, including Xcel Energy, Andersen Windows in Bayport, and Rotary District 5960,  which has 60 clubs and 3,000 members. All that’s required is pledging to commit to action to save pollinators, whether on public lands along the St. Croix River or in somebody’s backyard.

“Without the pollinators, we lose our food supply,” said Marlene Gargulak,  Rotary district governor from Rice Lake, Wis. “I feel so strongly that we have to be involved in this project because we are supposedly the leaders of communities. We have a responsibility to our citizens, to our future generations.”

Gargulak’s district stretches from St. Paul east into Wisconsin, enveloping all of the St. Croix watershed. She’s also working to convince the Rotary district in Minneapolis to join the cause.
“My goal is to get every Rotary club and district on the I-35 corridor actively involved in this project,” she said.

At Andersen Windows, which has 75 acres  on the St. Croix River, “that’s a big footprint for pollinators,” said spokeswoman Susan Roeder.  The corporate giant, which employs 3,800  workers in Washington County and the surrounding region, has planted vegetable and butterfly gardens on its properties and “the good news is we’re not using any herbicides or anything that will have a negative effect on pollinators.” 

Habitat decline

The NPS has two federal partners in the project, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tom Kerr,  who works for the latter,  said no scientific measurements exist that show the extent of pollinator decline in the St. Croix watershed. But he said declining habitat is widely evident.

“When you really start looking, there’s not much out there,” he said. “We used different chemicals, some of which are detrimental to milkweed plants. There have been a lot of changes, especially in how we manage agriculture. Hopefully people take a step back and say ‘Do I have to spray?’ or ‘Do I have to mow this ditch?’ or ‘Did I need to pull the milkweed out of my garden?’ ”

Kerr, who manages the St. Croix Wetland Management District,  said he’s currently working on a large grant application that would provide funding to buy plants and offer technical expertise to anyone restoring pollinator habitat.

Only sustained work by everyone who signs the Monarch Corridor pledge will make a difference, he said.“It’s a huge problem but you’ve got to take a piece at a time to resolve it,” he said. 

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037