Monarch butterfly habitats were the focus of an ISU Extension field day held Wednesday at a conservation water strip just outside Roland, about a year after conservationists at Iowa State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other groups launched programs to restore a dwindling butterfly population.

Iowa is among the most important states for monarch conservationists as it is part of the migration path the butterflies take every year as they fly south to hibernate in Mexico. Along the way, monarchs feed on milkweed, pollinate plants and lay their eggs, and are an indicator of how well a habitat supports other insects that pollinate flowers and control pests.

However, milkweed habitats have been dwindling due to increased use of pesticides and farmers considering them invasive in their farms and gardens, leading to fewer places for monarchs to eat and lay eggs. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates 150 million monarch butterflies hibernated last winter, compared to 682 million in 1997.

Iowa agriculture secretary Bill Northey told the 20 or so people in attendance that planting milkweed on small patches of unproductive land on fields or near streams not only help the butterflies’ habitat, but are another component that can be used to help improve the state’s environment.

“Iowans are kind of known for stepping out and doing things because they’re the right thing to do, not because we’re forced to do them,” he said.

Seth Appelgate, a monarch researcher at ISU, said the U.S.’ monarch population has fallen dramatically over the last two decades measured by the amount of acres the butterflies take up when they hibernate. Within the last decade, the acreage they occupied fell below 15 acres.

“That’s concerning, because some experts estimate that’s the level we need to stay at a sustainable population,” he said.

By the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium’s estimates, landowners in the U.S. would have to plant 1.6 billion milkweed stems, or four million acres at 400 milkweed an acre. While that seems high, Appelgate said the key is to plant habitats in ditches and near waterways and roadsides, areas where growing cash crops are difficult.

“In Iowa, our portion should be 350,000 additional acres of habitat,” he said. “There’s a lot of places we can do that … if a farmer is looking at a map, he can say this spot isn’t making me any money … therefore I’m going to turn it into habitat.”

For more information on monarch conservation in Iowa, visit