by Mary Ellen Ryall
Recently, Valerie Downes, long-time friend, visited the former Monarch Butterfly Habitat in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. What was once a remnant tall-grass prairie, dedicated as a Monarch Butterfly Habitat, is now a sandy dead-zone along side Highway 63 and the shores of Shell Lake. The habitat was dismantled in the summer of 2015. Pollinators and native plants were squeezed out and the habitat needed to be rescued. The paving of America and loss of habitat are two of the biggest threats to the precarious pollinator population. Once more, the paving of America is what ultimately destroyed the habitat.
Happy Tonics, Inc., a nonprofit Environmental Education Organization and Public Charity hired helpers. A trailer and truck were brought in to physically rescue physical structures and plant communities before the giant plant killing machines came in. Officers and Board Members helped with the rescue mission. Long time volunteer Jim VanMoorleham helped empty out the garden shed, which was donated to the Maintenance Department of Shell Lake. The shed was built by Shell Lake carpentry class. VanMoorhelam moved memorial metal art and a few donated granite benches to Shell Lake Friendship Center. The seniors had been good friends to Happy Tonics. Donors picked up a donated pergola, art signs and memory benches. Otherwise they were distributed around Shell Lake in public areas at the beach. Large glacier boulders were also placed in other gardens throughout the city.
Highway 63 was widened and would now encroach within the once blooming prairie. Parts of the habitat was going to be converted to additional paved parking space. Some thing had to go and it was the living beings that found refuge in the sanctuary. Nature would once again be asked to step aside. The life that existed consisted of migrating butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, deer, birds and an occasional bear. Instead of the chipper greetings to one and all, now there would be a deadened silence. All life that existed there disappeared.
At least a year before the transformation took place, the nonprofit sent brochures from Pollinator Partnership and letters to the City of Shell Lake, in the hopes of educating the City Council and Parks and Recreation Department about the pollinator crisis. Perhaps there might be a way for Shell Lake to move forward and protect the roadside pollinator haven at the same time.
In June 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum titled, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” It is understood that the pollinator crisis has a long-term effect on local food supply and food security issues. Loss of habitat also means a loss of biodiversity and the creative economy.
Since 2008 the Monarch Butterfly Habitat thrived with native grasses, wildflowers, a wild black cherry tree and shrubs. In the beginning, the soil was disturbed and sandy, once being a parcel of land along side a railroad track. Before that it was prairie. Invasive species moved in and overtook the land. Throughout the years, Happy Tonics volunteers pulled out invasive spotted knapweed that spread when the ATV trail and Highway 63 spit seed from tires and when birds excreted.
In summer 2015, big machines and pipes for road work were spread along the ATV trail and the habitat was dug up to install telephone poles and natural gas lines. It was definitely disturbed ground now. Undisturbed earth is necessary for ground nesting bees. I wish you could have seen them. Common eastern bumblebees, European honey bees, carpenter and perdita native bees made the habitat home. The habitat was also abundant in common milkweed for the Monarch Butterfly, another species in decline, with a survival rate of only 10 percent.
With all the native plant colonies established within the habitat, life abounded. Even dragonflies came to visit from nearby Shell Lake. They preferred to rest on tall native grasses and plunder passing insects, such as mosquitoes. It was a joy to watch and photograph dragonflies resting on grasses; their colors sparkling in the sun. The habitat also became a meditation garden when people walked the grassy path and connected with nature.
Roadsides are among the few remaining areas for some pollinating species to live. Now there is less than one-tenth of one percent of prairie that remains. Other states such as Iowa are more progressive. In 1988 Iowa legislators established an Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM) program. The state has reclaimed roadside habitats and the life that habitats provide. At the same time, Iowa is more conscious of herbicide use, mowing and other management tools.
There are side benefits of educating the public to protect pollinator habitat. Altering mowing can save money, reduce pollution and benefit pollinators. The advantage of no mowing does deter erosion. In the past, roads were thought of as utility corridors, but now the observant scientist and citizen scientist are seeing a rebirth of purpose being natural resources. Change comes slowly, but it is hoped that others will learn that highways and nature can become mutual friends. All life is connected one way or another. It is not up to us to destroy the balance of living harmoniously with nature.
Source: Wings, The Xerces Society, spring 2015