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Working Lands for Monarch Butterflies

Let NRCS develop a comprehensive, resource conservation plan for your operation and the monarch.

Story by Justin Fritscher and Spencer Miller; graphics created by Jenn Cole. Photos courtesy of butterfly-loving NRCS staff.

This story is also available as a multimedia story.

NRCS works with farmers to conserve the environmental resources necessary for an economically sustainable business, not just monarch habitat.

Let NRCS develop a comprehensive, resource conservation plan for your operation and the monarch.

The Monarch Butterfly

The monarch is one of the most familiar butterflies in North America, known for its annual, multi-generational migration from overwintering sites in central Mexico and coastal California to as far north as Canada. 

Populations of the black-and-orange butterfly have decreased significantly over the past two decades, in part because of the decrease in native plants like milkweed – the sole source of food for monarch caterpillars. 

Because monarch butterflies are always on the move, they need to have the right plants at the right time along their migration route. 

Development, agriculture and invasive plants have led to declines in milkweed and abundant sources of nectar needed by the monarch and many other pollinators.

How Producers Are Helping

America’s farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are voluntarily combating the decline of monarchs by adding and maintaining high-quality monarch habitat on their land. 

Bruce Reynolds and Julie Hoffman are working to bring back the prairie on their ranch in Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Through the Farm Bill, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides assistance to agricultural producers to help make conservation improvements that benefit the monarch and other pollinator species while also increasing the productivity and resiliency on working lands. 

NRCS conservationists and wildlife biologists provide farmers with technical assistance to develop a conservation plan as well as select which conservation practices are the best fit for their land. 

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program can provide financial assistance to help cover the cost of implementing those practices. 

For example, Bruce Reynolds and Julie Hoffman are working to bring back the prairie on their ranch in Sulphur, Oklahoma. 

The land once had wide open grasslands, but over the years, conifer trees encroached, degrading the habitat for wildlife and forage quality for livestock. 

By removing the trees using prescribed burning, they are making the land better for cattle and monarchs. Read more.

Conservation Choices

NRCS offers more than three dozen conservation practices that can benefit monarchs by managing for healthy stands of milkweed and high-value nectar plants, and protecting these stands from exposure to pesticides. While many of these practices may target improving grazing lands or boosting soil health, simple tweaks to the practice can yield big benefits for monarchs. 

Here are a few of the practices that will improve your land and help monarchs: 

Plans and Plants

The variety of available practices offer producers many choices for how they can best help monarch butterflies and address other natural resource concerns on their land. 

As part of NRCS conservation programs, NRCS and conservation partners work with producers to develop a property-wide or site-specific plan, which takes into account the land as well as the producers’ goals. 

Additionally, NRCS, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and others have collaborated to develop lists of the best plant species to use while implementing conservation practices for monarch butterflies. 

Bees and Butterflies

Conservation practices that benefit monarchs also help honey bees, native bees and other pollinators. Honey bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of crops annually, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables. 

Monarch butterflies in a field.

Pollinators play an important role in boosting yields on working lands. One out of every three bites of food in the United States depends on honey bees and other pollinators. 

Like monarchs, honey bees and many native bee species are struggling. 

Targeting Resources

Conservation practices that benefit monarch butterflies are available to producers nationwide. But to accelerate conservation, NRCS provides additional technical and financial assistance to help producers in 10 states implement practices to help bolster the Eastern population of monarch butterflies. 

These states compose the heart of the monarch’s migration route in the east. The monarch butterfly is one of eight nationally identified species of Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), the agency’s targeted conservation effort for wildlife.

NRCS’ effort contributes to a multi-agency, international strategy to reverse the monarch’s population decline in North America, estimated to have decreased from one billion butterflies in 1995 down to about 34 million.

Through the National Strategy to Protect Pollinators and Their Habitat, the United States has a goal of increasing the eastern population of monarchs back up to 225 million by 2020.

Get Started

Two-thirds of the continental United States is privately owned, and producers can play a crucial role in helping recover the monarch. 

Without the help of American farmers, monarch butterflies won't make a comeback. A small effort can save a species. We will help you.

NRCS accepts applications for conservation programs on a continuous basis. Producers interested in NRCS assistance are encouraged to contact their local NRCS field office