The butterfly effect: Addressing land degradation and its harm to pollinator habitat
By Kris Leonhardt
MARSHFIELD — While it is no secret that humans altering the landscape affects native plant and animal species as well as the safety of food sources, it is important to know multiple local groups and programs are working to reverse the harmful results.
The root of the problem
“Our native plant and animal species are suffering a death by a thousand blows these days,” explained Wildwood Zookeeper Steve Burns, who holds a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology and management. “Most situations that alter land use from its original state will degrade habitat. One of the major — often overlooked — factors affecting plant and wildlife habitat is fragmentation. Many animal species need large blocks of contiguous habitat.
“Even something like a road easement through a preserve can be detrimental. Though the road itself might take up a small amount of land, the separation it creates can make the area unusable for many species. Additionally, the ‘edge’ between native and altered land use is often the first spot invasive species will encroach upon.”
Land degradation caused by human activity comes in forms such as land clearance, vehicle off-roading, mining, pollution, and removal of vegetation.
Land clearance: By the numbers
While land clearing is a global issue, its local presence is evident in Clark County, where residents clear woodland to make small farms and open fence lines to make larger farms. Throughout the previous decade, the DeCaire family has watched the conversion of woodlands and fence rows into tillable farm land.
“My husband’s uncle, Bob Steffes, told my husband, Rod, and I that if you would let the fence lines’ vegetation grow in, you would have more pheasant and wildlife in the area,” said Kathy DeCaire of Owen. “We think that he would be surprised to see all of the woodland that we have lost.
“Just as we need the land for agriculture, our wildlife need it for their home and their survival. It is difficult to see where square-mile sections have no trees anymore. Where did the wildlife go? What will be left for the next generation to see and enjoy? Can’t we leave some trees and fence lines for the wildlife?”
The changing landscape is notable in Wood County as well.
“The first factor is that farmland in Wood County and Wisconsin as a whole is decreasing due to urban sprawl, rural residential lots, other developments, etc.,” said Adam Groshek of the Wood County Land & Water Conservation Department. “This must be accounted for when you look at the reduced woodland aspect of things because it is not only farmland that is land clearing but multiple other things as well.
“The second factor is that it appears that as a whole, the total woodland portion of farmland is decreasing over time. This could be due to clearing fencerows to make four 40-acre fields into one 160-acre field, expanding field sizes along the borders, clearing wooded land to place into farmland, etc. … My gut is telling me that the fencerow clearing is the most common of the (three). The trend is for farms to more efficiently farm their land by using bigger machinery by combining many smaller fields to make less, bigger fields.
“The third factor that must be accounted for is that while there has been a loss of wooded farmland, there likely has been an increase in grasslands, CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program)/CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) idle lands that may be beneficial to bees and butterflies with their relatively undisturbed herbaceous plants. More farms are utilizing cover crops and no-till that allow farm fields to be vegetated almost year-round because they are not tilled under or are minimally disturbed. This third point is highly influenced by market prices for commodities and the farm bill acres that are allowed each year to go into CREP/CRP lands.”
Census numbers in Wood County indicate a drop in total woodland in farm land use from 47,823 acres in 2007 to 38,967 acres in 2012 while the land in farms increased from 221,962 acres in 2007 to 222,730 acres in 2012.
In Clark County woodland in farm use dropped from 87,674 acres in 2007 to 82,871 acres in 2012 and land in farms rose from 440,376 acres in 2007 to 458,221 acres in 2012.
Habitat loss, pesticides, and other factors have led to the decline in the United States bee population, and for the first time in history, a bee species has been placed on the endangered species list. In February the rusty patched bumblebee was placed on the list as its population was down by 87 percent.
With economically important crops such as cranberries dependent on bees as pollinators, the Marshfield area has taken an active role in making a change.
Residents and business owners have introduced new colonies to promote repopulation and secure an active pollinator community.
Among those raising bees is Wildwood Park and Zoo, which maintains a honey bee colony annually as an educational means as well as a provider for the park and city.
“You can come into the former zoo store building,” explained Burns. “We have our observation hive in there where you can look right into a bee hive and see them at work. It is a really cool opportunity to learn about honey bees and also educate yourself about other pollinator species at risk, species that are really important to us and our environment.”
A home for monarchs
In 1996 the wintering monarch population in Mexico was estimated at more than one billion butterflies. Last year’s estimates put the wintering population at closer to 56 million: a decrease of more than 90 percent.
Like bees, butterflies are critical to pollination of food sources.
“They are a pollinator when they go from flower to flower. They carry nectar with them all of the time,” explained Sam Warp of Marshfield’s Wastewater Management Department. “Honey bees get all of the glory, you might say, … but butterflies can do the same thing.
“When we switched over to an all-natural plant where we don’t use chemicals to take out phosphorus anymore, we were looking for ideas on how we could promote that theme.”
“Bob Trussoni, our general manager, attended a conference, and there was a speaker there about monarch conservation,” explained Cathy Lotzer, technical services manager from Marshfield Utilities. “They were encouraging communities to come on board with conservation effort and designate areas where you can build a garden.”
From there Marshfield Utilities and the Wastewater Management Department partnered in a project to re-establish the butterfly in the Marshfield area, setting up a monarch garden at Marshfield’s wastewater treatment plant.
The garden has been designated as a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation and is now part of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a national effort to create a million gardens that provide a habitat for the declining butterfly and bee populations.