Why Are Monarch Butterflies Important for Our Planet?

13 of June of 2023

Most people never stop to think about the strips of land that run alongside our streets, avenues, and boulevards.

But when you add them all up, these roadsides cover huge areas that can benefit our communities in surprising ways.

The Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) is tapping into this potential by collaborating with the 407 ETR to transform roadsides into natural habitats for the beautiful and endangered monarch butterfly.

Thanks to the interconnectedness of all living things, this has a positive ripple effect that extends out through the entire ecosystem.

The magical monarch butterfly

Monarchs are a migratory species; they are one of the only butterflies that travels thousands of miles every year. They fly all the way from Canada to Mexico each autumn, and it takes them about four generations to make the trip back again each spring. 

The communities who live along the monarchs’ migration routes feel very connected to this iconic species. They are used to seeing millions of bright orange and black butterflies flying through the sky and roosting en masse on trees and shrubs in a truly epic and magical display.

However, the eastern monarch butterfly population in North America is in decline due to habitat loss caused by herbicides, urbanization, and climate change.

With this habitat restoration project, we aim to create long stretches of natural meadows along roadsides where monarch butterflies and other pollinators can safely feed and rest. 

Transforming roadsides into natural habitats

407 ETR is the ideal collaborator for this project with CWF because of the prime location of Highway 407 ETR on a main monarch migratory route.

Together, CWF and 407 ETR are reaching out to neighbouring municipalities and offering them a path toward green policies to improve biodiversity in their communities and help save the beloved monarch butterfly.

Active and passive restoration

Specifically, we’re looking for municipalities that are willing to do active or passive restoration on their roadsides, especially on rural roads with low speed limits and low traffic volume.

When a community is creating or redoing a roadside, instead of planting a regular turf grass that has little or no ecological value for pollinators, they can put in a native seed mix. This is called active restoration. 

In three years, they will have created a colorful meadow habitat with a diverse mix of native grasses and 20 to 25 species of wildflowers that would naturally grow in the area. 

Another option is passive restoration, which involves changing vegetation maintenance practices. This could be reducing the use of herbicides or adjusting mowing schedules

For example, rather than mowing multiple times a year, which can eliminate habitat and feeding resources for pollinators, we recommend mowing less often and planning the mowing times around monarch migration.

Training municipalities and working together 

Once we find municipalities that are ready to take on more environmental stewardship, the next step is to come together and start training.

The CWF provides information on habitat restoration techniques and works directly with each community to determine where and how they can make positive changes to their practices. The municipalities also learn from one another, sharing successes and challenges as they move forward toward a common goal.

Essentially, we work together to maximize the habitat for monarchs and other pollinators using public spaces that have to be managed anyway. 

For example, in areas with transmission lines, municipalities have to monitor and maintain the vegetation so that trees and shrubs don’t grow above a certain height. Power untilities have to do this monitoring. A roadside practice is to mow the safety zone, but they can change how they manage the area behind the safety zone. Reduced mowing, planting natives, etc.

We can step in and say, “Since you’re already doing maintenance, why not add wildflowers and grasses to provide a natural meadow habitat?” 

It’s truly a win-win. With a few fixes, native plant species that are suited to the roadside can be grown and pollinators are much happier for it. This is how we move toward environmental sustainability.

The butterfly effect on the ecosystem

While monarchs are the inspiration behind the project, the inherent interconnectivity of nature means that when we help the butterflies, we strengthen the web that unites all living things.

If we think about monarch butterflies as the driver of a bus, all the other pollinator species are passengers who can hop on and enjoy the ride to the same end point. The same flowers that provide pollen and nectar for the butterflies also benefit other pollinators, from all sorts of beesthere are around 800 of native bee species in Canadato wasps, beetles, and flower flies. Small mammals and birds also find homes in the new habitats. 

Furthermore, planting native species can reduce environmental issues like soil erosion and snow drifting. The soil also stores carbon and helps with drought by holding onto moisture longer.

With the passing of the seasons, people can enjoy seeing beautiful spring and summer flowers in all different color ranges. The landscape changes and provides different benefits over the course of each year. 

Encouraging public support for green policies

The success of this monarch habitat restoration project relies on the support of the people living in municipalities along highway 407 in the Greater Toronto Area. Educating and informing the public is key. 

It’s essential for us to help people understand and appreciate what a meadow looks like and the value it has for the environment. We also have to manage expectations of what the land will look like throughout the restoration process. 

People are used to seeing mowed lawns, so when they drive by a meadow with tall grass and wildflowers, they might think, “Oh, that needs to be mowed and cleaned up.” They don’t realize that the meadow gives many plants and animals a home, contributing to biodiversity and strengthening the ecosystem.

One of the things we do is create signage to highlight the importance of these areas. The orange signs with a Monarch design indicate that “Restoration in Progress” for the area.

The decision makers in a municipality are the city council members, who act according to what the public votes on and what they want in their community. 

By raising awareness and ensuring people know what we’re working toward, we hope to cultivate the public support that will make habitat restoration possible. 

The more people know about how to help monarch butterflies and the environment, the more passionate they become. It’s inspiring to see how people’s perspectives change as they realize their actions can make a big difference in the natural world.

Seeing the bigger picture on a global scale

One of the targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework that came out of the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference is to restore 30% of the world’s ecosystems by 2030

Restoration projects like this one are incredibly important, not just for the pollinators and local communities where we’re working, but also to meet these goals on a global level. 

Everything is interconnected; when we save our fellow plant and animal species from extinction, we help safeguard our planet for the future of all living things. 

Plus, the world is a little more magical when you share it with someone like the monarch butterfly.

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