The monarch butterfly has a new chance at recovery, thanks to an innovative program seeking to crowdsource funding and habitat for the beloved species at an unprecedented scale and pace.
"The Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange is a market-based solution for restoring and conserving high-quality monarch habitat on America's private working lands," said David Wolfe, director of conservation strategy and habitat markets at Environmental Defense Fund. "We like to call it an 'Airbnb for butterflies' because it's the only program of its kind that can open the vast untapped potential of large-scale farms and ranches to make habitat available for monarchs, fast."
Studies estimate that the monarch butterfly's population has declined by 95 percent since the 1980s.
"The monarch faces a June 2019 deadline for an Endangered Species Act listing decision," Wolfe said. "To change the monarch's trajectory and avoid the need for restrictive regulations that often accompany a listing, we need to restore millions of acres of native milkweed and wildflowers across the butterfly's vast migration route."
"Agricultural lands make up roughly half of the acreage required to recover the monarch," Wolfe added, "so recruiting farmers and ranchers who manage these large-scale landscapes will be a game changer."
Through the exchange, landowners are paid to create, maintain and improve habitat on their property through a variety of restoration activities.
"The exchange incorporates robust science, close monitoring and transparent reporting to ensure that each dollar achieves the most bang for the buck, and for the butterfly," Wolfe said.
Potential investors and donors include food, chemical and seed companies, state farm bureaus, wildlife agencies, philanthropic organizations and concerned citizens. All funds raised through the exchange are directed to Biodiversity Works, a Texas-based nonprofit responsible for administering the program.
"We anticipate a broad range of private and public funding sources from various companies, associations and individuals looking to achieve corporate sustainability goals, maximize conservation outcomes, and ensure that the monarch butterfly stays off the endangered species list," Wolfe said.
Smithfield Foods, a global food company that is also the world's largest hog producer and pork processor, is the first food company to participate in the program, contributing $300,000 to restore key prairie habitat for monarchs in Missouri. Smithfield invested in this project because of its multiple sustainability benefits, including providing habitat for pollinators, water quality benefits, carbon sequestration and biomass for biogas revenue.
"Participating in the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange is a commitment to our employees, our producers, and our customers who care about wildlife and the multiple other environmental benefits that this program will achieve," said Kraig Westerbeek, senior director of Smithfield Renewables and Hog Production Division Environmental Affairs for Smithfield Foods. "We want to do our part to make sure that monarchs continue to thrive and play their significant role in our ecosystem."
The exchange is currently focused on developing projects in Missouri, Texas and California. Projects range from full prairie restoration to supplemental planting of milkweed within marginal agricultural fields. Milkweed is vital to monarch success, since butterflies lay their eggs and caterpillars feed exclusively on the milky sap-filled plant.
Amy Greer is a sixth-generation rancher in Brady, Texas. She and her husband, George, decided to participate in the exchange to help re-establish native milkweed and wildflowers on their ranch. Amy is also a trained wildlife biologist.
"George and I both understand how important ecological diversity is for all the plants, animals, insects and birds that live here on the ranch aside from us and our cattle," Amy said. "We also understand the importance of pollinators to the larger food system, so anything we can do to improve habitat for bees and butterflies is important to us."
Landowners, agribusiness leaders, philanthropic foundations and concerned citizens can help support projects on the ground by contacting the exchange or donating through the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange website.