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Updated USDA Program Enables Farmers and Ranchers to Help Monarch Butterflies

A monarch butterfly on a flower

NRCS has updated its Conservation Stewardship Program to enable farmers and ranchers to plant milkweed and other plants to help monarch butterflies. NRCS photo by Gene Barickman.

An update to one of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) key conservation programs will enable farmers and ranchers to aid the imperiled monarch butterfly. This year, NRCS updated its Conservation Stewardship Program to include incentives for farmers and ranchers who plant milkweed and other nectar-rich plants favored by monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed to lay their eggs during their annual journey from Mexico to the United States to as far north as Canada. Data show that monarch populations have decreased significantly over the past two decades, in part because of the decrease in native plants, including milkweed, on which their caterpillars feed.

NRCS conservation programs help monarchs and other pollinators by providing assistance to farmers and ranchers who plant pollinator-friendly wildflower, shrubs and trees. This update to CSP is intended to better target that help to monarchs in need. Specifically, the agency created a special supplement to CSP’s Pollinator and Beneficial Insect Habitat Enhancement Activity that encourages planting milkweed and other plants with high-value nectar for monarchs.

CSP helps farmers and ranchers maintain and improve their existing conservation systems and adopt additional conservation activities to address priority resources concerns, earning payments for conservation performance. It’s available to farmers and ranchers nationwide.

Milkweed growing along a roadside in Michigan

Milkweed grows along a roadside in Michigan. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hopwood, Xerces Society.

Agriculture and development have removed much of the native milkweed that once spanned the country. In addition to its leaves serving as the sole food for monarch butterfly caterpillars, milkweed has other ample benefits. It produces high quality nectar, which is not only used by monarchs but native and honey bees, too. Milkweed also supports insects that are natural predators and parasitoids of many crop and garden pests, providing a natural pest control to destructive insects.

Selecting the appropriate milkweed species and nectar producing plants for different parts of the country is an important part of NRCS’ conservation efforts. Because monarch butterflies are on the move, they need to have the right plants at the right time along their migration route. That means having milkweeds for the caterpillars to complete their life cycle and nectar producing plants in bloom for needed energy when the butterflies are passing through an area. NRCS is working with many partners to develop recommended species list of native plants to meet the unique habitat needs for the monarch butterfly.

A monarch caterpillar on a leaf

A monarch caterpillar depends on milkweed for food. Photo courtesy of Mace Vaughan, Xerces Society.

NRCS is also working to broaden its monarch-friendly activities beyond CSP into other Farm Bill conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). These programs already help provide benefits to pollinators, but NRCS hopes to tailor these as well to the needs of monarchs and to target specific funding to enhance or restore monarch habitat across its range.

NRCS’ effort is part of a multi-agency, international strategy to reverse the monarch’s population decline in North America. The North America Monarch Conservation Plan has a goal for 10 million acres of monarch habitat to be created or restored in the United States. President Obama met with Mexico President Enrique Peña and Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year to discuss a continent-wide effort to help the monarch and restore loss of milkweed.

This week marks National Pollinator Week, and USDA is highlighting the important role that pollinators, including monarchs, play in agriculture. To get started with NRCS, visit your local USDA Service Center or

Tips on how to help pollinators thrive

Tips on how to help pollinators thrive.

6 Responses to “Updated USDA Program Enables Farmers and Ranchers to Help Monarch Butterflies”

  1. Paul Cherubini says:

    Monarch butterflies are not in trouble. Plantings are neither needed nor will they help build monarch numbers. The reason the plantings cannot build monarch numbers is because there are still around 3 billion milkweed plants that grow east of the Rocky Mountains and support a huge population of 100 million monarch butterflies. So even if farmers and other enthusiasts planted 100,000 more milkweeds during the next 5 years, only about 3,333 more butterflies would be produced - not even 1/100th of one percent more than already exist!

  2. Maureen Logan says:

    It seems the number of Monarch butterflies have declined. What are your credentials to say that are not in trouble. Possibly pesticides are an issue in their numbers, but how can you be so certain that nothing can be done to aid their survival?

  3. Carla Bowman says:

    I live in central Pennsylvania and have large patches of common milkweed, swamp milkweed, showy milkweed, whorled milkweed and butterfly weed growing in the back or center of my “native” perennial gardens.
    The flowers of Common Milkweed provide a great source of nectar for other butterflies, beetles, flies and especially bees of all sorts. The flowers of common milkweed are very fragrant, almost vanilla-like. Not to mention, native Milkweeds are the only plant Monarch’s lay their eggs on to hatch and feed.
    Common Milkweed is the choice of many Monarch Butterflies that visit my gardens, along with Swamp Milkweed being a close second. Swamp Milkweed prefers a moist soil, which is great planted in low-lying areas, rain gardens, and at the ponds edge as well.
    I have been following Monarch Butterflies for years, and yes there is certainly a decline of Monarchs due to loss of milkweed habitat from development, modified crops, herbicide and pesticide use. The Monarch’s decline is also attributed to illegal logging in their overwintering sites.
    A very sad situation indeed; as a child I remember the abundant Monarch Butterflies and other wonderful pollinator’s fluttering through my father’s garden, that was 50 years ago. Today you may see six on a good day.
    Please help their plight, any milkweed plantings one can do, small or large, will most certainly benefit this amazing and beautiful butterfly.
    We need “all our pollinators”—so please, please, please, accept some damage to your gardens and refrain from using chemicals found in pesticides and herbicides.
    Please check-out the internet where you will find many home-made remedies you can concoct for mildew, insects and leaf damage, they really work! Think Natural, Go Organic.

  4. Amy R says:

    It’s always bizarre when a person like Paulie here, who offers no credentials, goes online to tell the World that people with lots of credentials are just plain wrong. Wishful thinking? Corporate trolling? Hard to tell. Either way, the Monarchs are indeed in trouble, and I hope my new mini-milkweed farm will help, even just a little. (I’m @treesass on Twitter:)

  5. Diane S. Levesque says:

    A few comments:

    * After the freak storm in Mexico, monarchs have become more endangered, not less endangered

    * As an urban individual who is participating in the monarch larvae monitoring project, I as a non-rancher individual who is deliberately left out of USDA program participation even though I’ve repeatedly approached our municipal government to grow milkweed in its public spaces such as its bird sanctuary and its public park areas.

    * I’ve reviewed the USDA’s milkweed species list for my area (Oklahoma) and while it lists Zizotes, Spider, and Green Antelope Horn as preferable to Common, and while it points out that all of these are shade-averse, it omits a variety that will tolerate partial shade: Honeyvine.

    There are other advantages of encouraging the planting of Honeyvine for monarch larvae besides the fact that it will tolerate some shade, too. For example, herbaceous milkweeds grow only just so tall and a broad area of acreage has to be devoted to providing quantity. Honeyvine grows vertically and saves space along the lines of how an espalier conserves space in terms of fruit tree plantings. Pinch pruning will result in multiplying the number of tender shoots of leaves preferred by monarchs. And no adult monarch can pass up feeding on its blossoms, either.

  6. Diane S. Levesque says:

    I forgot to mention that the Garfield County OSU Extension office has zero information on any of the USDA’s monarch/milkweed programs, and I find that astonishing. I’m not sure who at OSU main to address to bring this to their attention, but I’m sure they’ll pay better attention to the USDA than they would to me. How about it?

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