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Miles and miles of secondary roadsides in Linn County will be blooming with native flowers and milkweed in the coming years. A new public-private partnership between Linn County and the Monarch Research Project (MRP) will add pollinator habitat to 1,000 miles of county secondary road ditches over the next four years.
The Linn County Board of Supervisors approved the pilot project at its May 29, 2018 meeting.
“The 1,000 Mile Pilot is a unique public-private partnership established to provide refuge and food for endangered bees, butterflies and other pollinators by establishing significant native habitat in public road rights of way,” says Brent Oleson, Linn County supervisor. “As a steward of the public land, I am proud to have been a part of the planning process.”
The 1,000 Mile Pilot is the latest demonstration project in an effort by MRP to add 10,000 acres of pollinator habitat in Linn County.
The first large-scale endeavor was the 1,000 Acre Plan, a public-private partnership between MRP and the cities of Cedar Rapids and Marion and Linn County Conservation. That project adds pollinator habitat in city parks, golf courses, and other public properties. In 2017, the project’s first year, 350 acres of pollinator habitat were planted: 182 in Cedar Rapids, 27 in Marion and 141 in Linn County parks. Another 228.5 acres will be planted in 2018.
The 1,000 Mile Pilot will place native habitat in 60- to 100-square-foot mini-prairies throughout a portion of Linn County secondary roadway ditches.
“For the purpose of efficiency, we are outfitting a single vehicle to mow, spray and seed the mini-prairies,” says Clark McLeod, president of the Monarch Research Project. “The pilot’s purpose is to develop an effective way to pervasively deploy habitat in ditches in a cost-effective manner.”
Iowa State University helped develop the native seed mix used in the pilot and will be testing and monitoring results during the four-year pilot.
Roadsides for Wildlife Habitat
This initiative is a local version of a national effort to improve pollinator habitats on transportation rights-of-way. "Secondary roadsides are the largest amount of underutilized land in Linn County," says Rob Roman, Roadside Vegetation Manager for the Linn County Secondary Road Department.
In 2016, Iowa, five other states and the Federal Highway Administration signed an agreement to make Interstate Highway 35 roadsides more conducive to bees and butterflies by integrating plants that provide refuge and food for the pollinators in hopes of helping them recover from declining populations.
“I've always liked using roadsides for wildlife habitat because it takes advantage of existing acres. The 1,000 Mile Pilot takes this to a new level by helping monarchs and pollinators directly—in a way that can be replicated," says Joe McGovern, president of Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. “This plan is a great example of partnering to make a difference, and I hope this model can be used all over Iowa.”
The 1,100 miles of secondary roadway in Linn County include 2,200 miles of roadside ditches. Not all areas will be planted, including those currently maintained by landowners. The goal is to plant, at a minimum, 1,000 miles of roadway ditches. Complementing the pilot activity is the regular work of Linn County crews, who will continue their annual restorations of roadsides that have been disturbed during construction projects.
This project’s focus on less-traveled secondary roads also lessens the chance for butterflies and bees to collide with vehicles.
Protecting the Habitats
A reminder to adjacent landowners and tenants, Iowa Code 318.3 states that physical changes within the public road right-of-way require a permit from the Highway Authority. Spraying roadside ditches is a physical change, and herbicide spraying can easily destroy the public investments in erosion control, weed control, habitat and sustainability. Any permit issued for right-of-way spraying in Linn County will be consistent with Linn County’s Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management Plan and Program.
Why Pollinator Habitat?
Pollination is an essential part of the agricultural ecosystem. Pollinators—bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and other species—carry pollen from the male to the female parts of flowers as they feed on nectar, allowing for plant reproduction.
One-third of the food humans consume is dependent on pollinators, according to a 2006 international study. Pollinators are critical to the US economy, food security and environmental health. But the food sources that sustain pollinators continue to disappear.
The US Department of Agriculture found that nearly 24 million acres of native habitat were converted to crop production between 2008 and 2011.
Indeed, several studies have called the loss of milkweed in the Midwest the most important factor in the declining numbers of migrating monarch butterflies. In the last 20 years, the population of monarch butterflies in the Midwest has decreased by more than 90 percent. The United States currently is studying whether to protect the monarch under the Endangered Species Act.
Adding more milkweed and pollinator plants to the landscape is a goal of both MRP and the state of Iowa.
In March 2018 the Iowa departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources established goals to increase the milkweed count in Iowa to improve the habitat for monarch butterflies. They hope to add 127 million stems, about double the amount of milkweed that currently exists, in the next 20 years.
Milkweed and More
The seed mix that will be planted in these rights-of-way includes 35 varieties of native forbs and legumes and 13 species of native grasses. (See complete list below.) Priority has been placed on local eco-types. The nectar-producing plants will bloom at various times through the season, so butterflies and bees always will find a food source.
Since they evolved in this region, these native plants are well adapted to Iowa’s climate and insects. Their deep root systems help them tolerate drought and compete for soil nutrients.
The mix’s four varieties of milkweed—butterfly, common, swamp and whorled—are crucial to the monarch butterfly. Milkweed leaves are where monarch butterflies lay eggs, and the plant is the only food monarch caterpillars eat.
This project is expected to add nearly 1 million stems of milkweed throughout Linn County. Iowa State University’s Assistant Professor John M. Pleasants, Ph.D., has estimated that Linn County needs to add 1.5 million stems of milkweed to support a sustainable monarch butterfly population.
That’s in addition to the 500,000 stems that currently are being planted in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Linn County parks—an effort that caught the attention of national and international news outlets in 2017. The Iowa Economic Development Authority estimates that coverage of the public-private partnership, dubbed the 1,000 Acre Plan, reached 72 million people.
The multi-year total budget for this endeavor tops $1 million. Seed costs account for about half of the expenses; bids for the 48-variety mixture are coming in slightly under $600 per acre.
Funding for the project is being provided by the Monarch Research Project through fundraising and local grants. Herbicide to prepare the ditches for the plantings is being donated by Monsanto.
Mow, Spray, Plant, Study
The process for planting the pollinator plots or “mini-prairies” begins by eliminating existing, competing vegetation, first by mowing the site and then applying herbicide. These tasks will be done by Monarch Research Project employees during summer months. In the fall, the seed mixture will be planted. A GPS unit will be used to document all sites, so that roadside crews can maintain the mini-prairies properly until they are fully established.
The pilot will begin in the southeastern quadrant of Linn County; an additional quadrant will be completed in each of the following three years. Linn County will provide long-term maintenance of the roadsides.
Like all prairie plantings, the first year of growth will result in few blooms. Instead the plants will spend their energy putting down good roots, and the land will be periodically mowed to reduce weed competition.
Residents will begin to see blooms in the second year, and by the third year, the native plants will become mature and dominate the site. At that time, the areas will require minimal mowing and maintenance, reducing long-term maintenance costs for the county.
Iowa State professors, researchers and students will study the efficacy of this process by monitoring the new green infrastructure for both stem counts and monarch egg counts. The pilot is expected to provide data to create recommendations for implementation of pollinator plots in other jurisdictions’ roadside management practices.