By Brendan Gibbons STAFF WRITER
AUSTIN — Thousands of acres of private land across Texas and eight Midwestern and Plains states could become better habitat for vulnerable monarch butterflies, thanks to a federal grant program.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials Friday announced $720 million in funding for 84 projects across the U.S., including $6 million for monarch butterfly preservation in Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. The iconic butterfly’s population has dropped from an estimated high of about 1 billion 20 years ago to a low of 20 million before a modest rebound to 34 million today, deputy undersecretary Ann Mills said at Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Texas will be the lead state in the project because of its vast amount of private land and its importance for monarchs crossing the state during their annual migration to Mexico from the Upper Midwest and Northeast.
The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service will work with farmers, ranchers and landowners to plan which areas of their property could serve as habitat for milkweed, monarchs’ preferred food source, and nectar plants for other pollinators. Money also will go toward building up seed supplies for milkweed and nectar plants. Milkweed also is where monarchs lay their eggs. Landowners can find out how to participate through their local USDA service centers. “Pollinators play a critical role in crop production” and are “clear indicators of ecosystem health,” Mills said. “The benefits we get from protecting that habitat create all kinds of co-benefits for Americans.”
While scientists debate the exact causes of the monarchs’ decline, most believe it is tied to the destruction of milkweed and its habitat by some agricultural pesticides and catastrophic weather. The project ideally will target 70,000 acres of private land, said Jay Jensen with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which contributed funds. People in monarch country do not need large properties to make their homes monarch-friendly, Jensen said, because anyone can plant milkweed or other nectar plants. “This is something that can be done on just a backyard or just a few acres,” he said.
Other projects in Texas funded by this latest round of grants include $700,000 to preserve 22,000 acres next to Fort Hood in Coryell and Bell counties through conservation easements. The easements will protect grazing lands, as well as habitat for the monarch and the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Farmers and ranchers in all or parts of 27 counties in the Texas Panhandle also will receive $2 million to spend on irrigation projects meant to conserve water from the rapidly draining Ogallala Aquifer.
USDA funding for the program came from the 2014 Farm Bill, Mills said. The USDA will contribute about $220 million in funding across the country. Other agencies and conservation groups will contribute roughly $500 million in matching funds. email@example.com @bgibbs on Twitter