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PARTNERSHIPS for Monarch Habitat in Oregon’s Willamette Valley

 

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“Since the Willamette Valley is mostly privately-owned, we have to be able to work on private land to restore monarch habitat and conserve this species." -- Jarod Jebousek

Watch the five-minute video on YouTube 

See more monarch habitat photos on Flickr

NRCS Wetland Easements in the Willamette Valley

Current easements: 73

Acres Protected: 8,070 acres 

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have teamed up to help private landowners improve Monarch habitat in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

“We are really fortunate in the Willamette Valley to have an active partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program,” said Dani Aleshire, NRCS wetland easement specialist. “They’re based out of the refuge complex, so they have access to equipment and contribute a lot of restoration expertise.”

Together, these agencies provide technical and financial assistance to help private landowners establish and maintain healthy butterfly habitat, such as gumweed and milkweed.

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Top: A monarch caterpillar rests on a milkweed leaf on the E4 Ranch easement site in Benton County, Oregon. Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it provides an essential food source for monarch caterpillars. Bottom left: Jarod Jebousek (left) and Nate Richardson, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service examine a patch of milkweed following a successful herbicide treatment last year to reduce competing grasses. Bottom right: Nate Richardson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, examines a milkweed cluster on the privately-owned E4 Ranch easement in Benton County NRCS Photos by Tracy Robillard.

According to a 2015 report from the Xerces Society, monarch butterfly populations have decreased by 90 percent worldwide since the mid-1990’s, mainly due to a lack of suitable habitat across its range (which covers portions of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada). The monarch’s primary habitat in the Valley is native prairie with milkweed -- a leafy, green plant with pink, nectar-rich blossoms. Milkweed is unique because it’s the only plant that monarchs will lay their eggs on, and it’s the only food source for monarch caterpillars.

Because of the substantial decline in population, the UWFWS is considering a petition to potentially list the Monarch butterfly on the federal endangered species list. While a decision hasn’t yet been made, private landowners—with help from government agencies, conservation groups, and volunteers -- are proactively taking steps to improve milkweed habitat.

“It’s been fantastic working with the NRCS and various landowners, as well as other conservation partners to improve monarch habitat in the valley,” said Nate Richardson, USFWS biologist. “Each partner brings different resources to the table, such as financial assistance, technical expertise, and equipment, and we work together on landscape-scale projects.”

The main vehicle driving the habitat work on private lands is the NRCS voluntary Wetland Reserve Easement program. Funded by the Farm Bill, this program allows landowners to restore wetlands on private agricultural lands and enroll them in long-term conservation easements.

 “Since the Willamette Valley is mostly privately-owned, we have to be able to work on private land to restore monarch habitat and conserve this species,” said Jarod Jebousek, USFWS biologist. “That’s what makes the Wetland Reserve Easement program and the rest of the NRCS Farm Bill programs so important. Because the monarch is a migratory species, they need a network of lands with native plant communities up and down the Willamette Valley to help them move through the area.”

Improving Milkweed at E4 Ranch

Just one example of this partnership at work is the recent establishment of milkweed clusters on the E4 Ranch easement in Benton County, Oregon. Under this project, NRCS enrolled 192-acres of private land into a 30-year wetland easement in 2005. As part of the easement contract, NRCS and the USFWS provided financial and technical assistance to restore the site to its native wetland prairie condition.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists Nate Richardson (left) and Jarod Jebousek (right), along with Dani Aleshire, a wetland easement specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, examine a milkweed cluster on the E4 Ranch easement site in Benton County, Oregon. NRCS photo by Tracy Robillard.

Before the restoration, the land was a flat pasture, filled with a single-species of grass for cattle grazing.  Now, the site is a diverse landscape filled with native trees, plants, and shrubs—including pollinator habitat such as gumweed and milkweed.

According to Richardson, the biggest challenge on the E4 Ranch easement is eradicating invasive weeds to promote native plant growth. It requires the targeted use of herbicides and mowing to suppress the weeds, as well as carefully-timed seeding of native species. There’s still a lot of progress to be made, but so far the site is showing a lot of promise.

For example, a couple years ago, Richardson sprayed for weeds on a 6-acre field within the easement area to prepare it for seeding. The next year, he discovered a few milkweed plants growing on the edge of the spray line -- the population was there, but the plants were suppressed by the heavy cover of meadow-foxtail grasses.

“I decided to mimic that same treatment in a different area on the same site, hoping I would get a similar response,” Richardson said. “So I sprayed another application that fall to reduce the competition of the non-native grasses. This spring, I found several patches of milkweed starting to grow in the area, so I did a grass-specific herbicide treatment within those patches.”

Now, two years later, that milkweed cluster has grown from about 20 plants to more than 5,000.

“It’s been amazing to see this field go from being a monoculture of pasture grasses to a rich and diverse landscape,” Richardson said. “Being able to see that change over time, and to see the diversity of wildlife and insects that use this land -- it’s extremely rewarding.”

 

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