Newsroom Midwest Region

How Saving One Butterfly Could Help Save the Prairie

Monarch on blazing star courtesy of Ken Slade/Creative Commons.
Monarch on blazing star courtesy of Ken Slade/Creative Commons.

Winter Seed Prep

People love monarch butterflies. They are big, vibrant and easy for people to watch in their gardens. If monarchs disappeared from the landscape, people would notice.

Don’t think of the monarch as one butterfly, think of it as a mosaic of prairie plants and animals that all need the same things - soil, sun and time to grow. Even in the face of massive habitat loss, we have been making a home for monarchs and species of the the wider prairie ecosystem for decades.

Our prairie restoration is intentional. These acts of conservation are not random and are happening on state, federal and private lands all over the region. This is something that you can help with, even if you live in the city and have only a small curbside boulevard. If you use the right plants, you can attract monarchs to your backyard, providing an essential migration path.

Prairie restoration is a year-round effort, even in the cold, dark winter. We wanted to offer you a snapshot of what we are doing this time of year on some of our national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts to get ready for the growing season. You can adapt these steps for your own backyard.

In simple terms, building habitat for monarchs and other prairie species is all about the seed.

Seed collection by Shawn May/USFWS.
Seed collection by Shawn May/USFWS.
  • Getting the right seed
  • Drying and storing seed
  • Spreading the seed
  • Knowing when to mow

Getting the right seed

A point of clarification on seed sources: Milkweed and other forbs are not universal and we go to great lengths to use seed from specific geographies that mirror remnant prairie. Case in point, Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District in northwestern Minnesota has been building prairie habitat for more than 20 years by harvesting a diverse seed mix from places like Santee Prairie State Natural Area to restore former cropland.

Using a typical agricultural combine, district staff harvest, dry and store more than 26,000 pounds of native seed each fall for planting in late February and into March. Staff test a sample batch of this harvest each year to get a sense of how viable the seed is, as well as what sort of plant diversity they have in the mix. It is key to have a mix of early and late-blooming nectar plants, as well as milkweed, to provide food sources over the course of the growing season. Over the past five years, these samples have had as much as 60 different native prairie plants, which bodes well for healthy prairies. The majority of these samples have had various milkweed species.

Across the country, there are more than 100 different types of milkweed, and even more nectar plants to choose from, but not all will do well in your part of the country. Selecting the right combination of milkweed and nectar plants for your area is essential.

While seed sources on most federal and state lands are not available for the public to harvest, you can learn a lot by talking with your local national wildlife refuge and wetland management district staff.

To get started, learn more about the milkweed and nectar plants that are right for your geographic area.

Drying and storing seed

Whether your seed harvest operation is high-volume, like Detroit Lakes, or in your own garden, drying and storing seed is an important step in advancing prairie habitat the following spring. Start drying your seed immediately after you harvest. In the case of the Detroit Lakes operation, the drying process takes about a week in the fall for each round of plants harvested. Large fans and a series of aeration tubes help staff dry seeds as quickly as possible so the seeds don’t rot.

After the seed is dry, bag and store it in a covered, cold place where it will stay dry throughout the winter months. Most species require a minimum of 30 days of cold storage to prepare for spreading in the early spring. At Detroit Lakes, staff keep seed at cold outdoor temperatures for roughly four to five months.

Spreading the seed

Late February and March are a good time to begin spreading seeds in the Midwest. Why do we spread seed in the late winter when it can naturally spread in the fall? When you are restoring an area that doesn’t have prairie plants, you need to add them to the land in a way that anchors them and gives them a chance to germinate before the snow melts or wildlife eats them.

The best weather scenario for planting is a blanket of snow and late winter sun. Staff at Detroit Lakes look for one to two feet of snow on the ground before spreading seed if possible. The angle of the sun is an important aspect of planting because as the sun’s light hits the dark seed, the heat causes the seeds to melt down into the snow during the day and then freeze into place once air temperatures lower at night. When there isn’t enough snow, staff use large rollers to anchor them to bare ground.

Next, learn more about how to prepare your seeds for spring planting.

Knowing when to mow

Each piece of prairie has a unique microclimate and is impacted by invasives and management practices from neighboring landowners. In the earlier example of Detroit Lakes, we find that the best way to manage prairie is through an annual cycle of spring prescribed burning, followed by a late summer seed collection. Letting the native plants move through their full growing cycle is the best tool against encroaching invasives.

As Detroit Lakes project leader Ryan Frohling explains, “We don’t mow very much, only when we get a serious weed complaint. We have worked with the counties to inform them about the diversity of species that we have.”

“Not only grass, but the forbs and wildflowers, will out-compete invasives such as plumeless thistle. What we’ve found, is that after about three years we no longer have any issues with this invasive, because the native plants out-compete them,” continued Frohling.

The monarch’s success or peril is a gauge of the overall health of a whole suite of life here in the Midwest. When we work for monarch conservation on protected lands and when you mindfully welcome them to your gardens across the region, we know that we are all supporting prairie health. Lesser known, and even more imperiled insects, like the Poweshiek skipperling and the Dakota skipper quietly benefit through these actions as well.

Monarchs are beautiful and watching their flight over prairie wildflowers on a warm summer day is something that people would truly miss. If we lost monarchs, we could lose so much more. So many other prairie species need the same things to thrive. In a way, monarchs represent the state of the prairie.

Learn more about how you can help save the monarch!