How to make money by saving monarch butterflies

The EDF’s habitat exchange program will match those with room to grow milkweed with those who need to make habitat amends.

The monarch butterflies have had a tough row to hoe. Twenty years back their fleet was a billion strong, a few years ago they were down to some 33 million. And while the last few years have seen an uptick in numbers, their future remains perilous. With a changing landscape thanks to development and modern agriculture practices, among other things, the all-important milkweed and food flowers that these royal pollinators rely on are dwindling, leaving them no place to lay their eggs and little to eat.

“These are the kinds of plants typically found in native prairie, roadsides, in the middle of farms. But in the last 20 years farming has changed,” says Eric Holst, the associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) working lands program. “It’s become a much more intensive activity, herbicide technology has allowed farms to be much more weed free. That provides benefits to farmers, but it has an unintended negative effect on populations of butterflies and other pollinators.”

There are a number of efforts underway to try and reverse the drop in monarch numbers, including the USDA asking farmers to volunteer portions of their land to establish milkweed habitat, writes Andrew Amelinckx for Modern Farmer. And now EDF is coming to the rescue by adding more of a market-driven program to the mix. Called a habitat exchange, Amelinckx explains it as something like a carbon market, “where landowners, farmers, and ranchers, get paid for restoring or improving monarch habitat either by entities like corporations or government agencies that need to mitigate their impact to wildlife, or by organizations and individuals who are interested in protecting monarch habitat.”

“It’s a venue to connect buyers and sellers of conservation services,” says Holst.

The concept was hatched more than a decade ago when the Army base at Fort Hood, Texas needed to make amends, in a sense, for the negative impact the base was having on threatened golden cheeked warblers. The EDF worked with nearby landowners to create the first habitat exchange in which those who created inviting warbler habitat earned conversation credits which were purchased by the Army.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made sure that the whole shebang was legitimate all-around, and thus a new program was established. The EDF has since launched similar actions for other protected species like the lesser prairie chicken, the greater sage grouse, and the Swainson’s hawk.

For the monarchs, the EDF hopes to create an environment in which farmers consider habitat building the same as any other crop they grow, notes Amelinckx. They are in the process of creating a tool for valuing the quality of habitat; the tool will begin testing this spring. They are also doing outreach and creating a list of potential buyers – companies, government agencies, and individuals – who want to invest in monarch conservation.

“We’re proposing to launch an exchange that would create an economic, financial stimulus, so that farmers and ranchers throughout the monarch range would have a financial incentive to preserve monarch habitat. Hopefully enough habitat can be created and enhanced to avoid listing the species [on the Endangered Species List],” says Holst. “A lot of the politics around wildlife right now involves the idea that the federal government is out to get ranchers and farmers. We want to turn that on its head. We think tools like habitat exchanges can create an environment where farmers and ranchers see wildlife as an asset rather than a liability.”

To find out more, visit Environmental Defense Fund.

Via Modern Farmer