Students design maps to help restore monarch habitat

January 29, 2018
Island Biogeography

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Over recent decades, Wisconsin’s monarch butterfly population has declined dramatically – an issue that a group of University of Wisconsin-Platteville students is hoping to help solve. The decline has been caused by a variety of factors, including loss of habitat and the disappearance of milkweed, the only food source of monarch caterpillars. Conservationists are concerned about the decline because monarchs are pollinators for wildflowers, agricultural crops and ecosystems, and they are an indicator of a region’s overall environmental health.

Evidence of the concern was made clear in 2015, when the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation established the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund. According to the NFWF website, the fund has awarded “$11.1 million to 70 projects that are helping conserve and recover the imperiled monarch butterfly,” with grantees providing an additional $18.1 million.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy, a nonprofit group based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin that is focused on environmental issues in Southwest Wisconsin, received a $240,000 grant from the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund, with the purpose of working with private landowners to restore native prairie vegetation that is vital to healthy monarch populations. Securing the funding was an important first step, with the next phase being to identify landowners who would be interested in joining the effort while ensuring that restoration sites were placed on the landscape to maximize their ecological benefit.

It was at this point when 13 UW-Platteville students taking an upper level geography seminar on Island Biogeography got involved.

Led by the course’s instructor, Dr. Evan Larson, associate professor of geography at UW-Platteville, and DALC staff members, students used the knowledge they developed over the fall semester to design a series of maps that utilized the principles of island biogeography to help guide DALC’s monarch restoration project.

Each student drew on information she or he gathered about large-scale ecosystem fragmentation experiments found around the world to consider how the area and isolation of restored monarch habitat would affect the species’ success. This information was then used to create multiple maps that considered topography, crop types, ownership, parcel size and more to identify especially promising sites in the Driftless Area for restoration. The maps were first shared, discussed and revised among the students, before a final subset of three maps was selected to share with DALC staff.

On Dec. 20, students presented the maps to Amy Alstad, land protection associate at DALC and overseer of the monarch project, in the university’s Tree-Ring, Earth, and Environmental Sciences Laboratory in Boebel Hall.

DALC will use the maps produced by the students to generate a mailing list of landowners in key areas. They will then contact the landowners to make them aware of the project and asking if they are willing to create monarch habitat on their property.

The maps also will help DALC’s efforts by solving the riddle of where to plant the monarch habitat. “Not all monarch habitat is created equal, and we wanted to make sure that we planted our seed mix in places that maximized the benefits for monarchs and other pollinators,” said Alstad.

The collaborative project has been beneficial to everyone involved.

“This whole experience was so exciting,” said Larson. “The students took the ideas behind a classic scientific theory, learned about their evolution and development through scientific research, and then took what they learned and applied it to a real problem in collaboration with a real conservation group to come up with real solutions for the people of Southwest Wisconsin. This is a perfect illustration of the value of a high-impact, liberal arts education.”

“As a student considering conservation as a career after graduation, the monarch habitat restoration project was very exciting because it gave me an opportunity to collaborate with both my classmates and the Driftless Area Land Conservancy,” said Tia Federman, a junior geography major from Mineral Point, Wisconsin. “Monarch habitats contain native vegetation that has historically been present in the Driftless Area, but has been exploited and converted into other cover types through agriculture and invasive species. Bringing back native species to any area helps restore natural cycles and rejuvenates biodiversity in ways that are useful to the ecosystem.”

Federman said working with Alstad was a great learning experience. “The maps we chose to present to Amy were selected with the monarch project’s goals in mind,” said Federman. “I was proud to hear such great feedback from her regarding the thoughtful work my peers and I put into these maps.”

Caleb Cizauskas, a junior geography major from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, said the project was important because it is the result of an accumulation of decades of restoration effort. “The output of this project aims to potentially provide a greater, more noticeable impact on all butterfly populations throughout Wisconsin, extending as far as Illinois,” he said. “I was surprised at the number of outside factors which needed to be considered while working to plan and then execute this project; all factors were necessary in order to ensure the effectiveness of plotted habitats as well as an efficient use of money.”

Larson said his favorite moment of the experience was seeing students’ reactions when, after a very productive two-hour conversation, Alstad told them that their efforts were directly benefitting a $240,000 restoration effort. “It was at that moment that I knew they really understood the importance of the work they had just completed,” said Larson.

Alstad noted that working with the students in the Island Biogeography seminar was a pleasure. “They took a big task off of my plate when they produced these maps, which will help me target my landowner outreach to the parts of the Driftless Area that are most strategic for monarchs,” she said. “I really enjoyed their enthusiasm, as well as several great ideas they shared about how to communicate most effectively with landowners.”

Student map designers included Federman; Cizauskas; Adam Donaldson, Kronenwetter, Wisconsin; Zach Donner, Columbus, Wisconsin; Tyler Fincutter, East Troy, Wisconsin; Nick Giefer, Green Lake, Wisconsin; Becca Hempe, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Jon Ley, Cuba City, Wisconsin; Tristan Martins, Postville, Iowa; Liana Milisauskas, Kenosha, Wisconsin; Reese Ruppert, Maquoketa, Iowa; Molly Tillman, De Pere, Wisconsin; and Hanna Tydrich, Richland Center, Wisconsin. 

The restoration project will be carried out by members of 12 organizations and agencies in Wisconsin that are working together to restore and enhance monarch habitat on 1,650 acres of permanently protected lands in the Southwest Savannah region of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.

Currently, the organizations and agencies are reaching out to private landowners to increase the amount of suitable monarch habitat across the landscape. As part of this effort, DALC is offering Driftless Area landowners a free seed mix that includes 17 species of wildflowers, including milkweed, to add to their fields or property to create excellent monarch habitat on their land and help protect monarchs. They are hopeful that their efforts will result in not only an increase in habitat, but also a greater sense of appreciation and awareness about monarch conservation.

Landowners interested in participating in monarch habitat restoration efforts may contact Alstad at or 608-930-3252.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, in collaboration with Dr. Evan Larson, Associate Professor of Geography, Department of Geography


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