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Oregon Ranchers Nurture Milkweed, Lure Monarchs

Posted by Tracy Robillard, Oregon Public Affairs Specialist on June 01, 2016 at 08:31 AM
Laurie Halsey examines a cluster of milkweed plants on her ranch.

Laurie Halsey examines a cluster of milkweed plants on her ranch.

If you plant them, they will come.

That’s Warren and Laurie Halsey’s approach to improving monarch butterfly habitat on their 270-acre ranch in Benton County, Oregon.

“If there’s no milkweed, there’s no place for the monarchs to lay their eggs. They depend on it,” Warren said. “We started planting milkweed about 12 years ago when we got some seeds from the Audubon Society. We took it on as an experiment and planted them in different spots on the property. It was a struggle getting the plants going, but we figured out what worked and what didn’t. And then, when the monarchs appear, it’s a blessing. You just get really excited.”

After a decade of trial and error, and with help from multiple volunteers and partners, the Halseys now have 19 active milkweed clusters on their ranch. This year, they reported seeing more monarchs than ever before.

The Decline of Monarch Butterflies
Milkweed is a critical component of monarch habitat. It’s a leafy, green plant with pink, nectar-rich blossoms. Milkweed is unique because it’s the only plant that monarchs will lay their eggs on, and it’s the only food source for monarch caterpillars.

Monarch butterfly populations have decreased by 90 percent worldwide since the mid-1990’s, mainly because of a lack of suitable habitat. Many factors have contributed to the habitat degradation, such as increased development, deforestation, agricultural expansion, pesticide use, forest fires, and other threats to their migratory paths, which spans portions of Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

Private landowners like the Halseys – with help from government agencies, conservation groups, and volunteers – are proactively taking steps to improve habitat.

Using NRCS Easements
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have teamed up to help the Halseys and other private landowners improve monarch habitat throughout Oregon’s Willamette Valley. These partners are able to work on private lands because of the NRCS’ voluntary wetland easement programs.

Funded by the Farm Bill, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program enables landowners to restore private agricultural lands and enroll them in long-term conservation easements.

“Easements are a really nice tool for landowners,” said Dani Aleshire, NRCS wetland easement specialist. “Sometimes they have one section of the farm that’s not productive, and it’s difficult for them to get good yields. They want to keep the land in their family, but they’re not making a profit from it. So the wetland easement is a really good fit for that. It’s truly a win-win for everyone.”

Restoring Wetlands
“Historically, this area was a swamp,” Warren said. “You could see the areas that were originally ponds that had been converted to farmland. It just wasn’t productive and it didn’t make sense to keep it that way.”

Shortly after buying the property, the Halseys worked with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Ducks Unlimited to restore the wetland areas to their natural hydrology. Later, they found out about NRCS and enrolled 69 acres into a 30-year wetland easement in 1998.

“If you can take less productive parts of your farm out of production, and if you’re interested in wildlife, then an NRCS easement is the perfect way to do it,” Warren said. “We couldn’t have done it without some financial support.”

Focusing on Wildlife
For the Halseys – and for many other customers who have NRCS wetland easements – the most important benefit is the focus on wildlife.

“We’ve loved nature all our lives,” Laurie said. “When we found this piece of property, we thought it would be wonderful to live here and to feel the seasons more intimately. But we wouldn’t have done it as intimately if we hadn’t had the wildlife easement, where we could have assistance in getting the biological diversity—and keeping it, because it requires routine maintenance.”

Educating Others
The NRCS wetland easement is just one small piece of the pie within the Halsey’s conservation portfolio. They planted most of the milkweed outside of the easement area, using their own resources and assistance from community volunteers. They embrace a proactive approach to habitat management, and they share their knowledge with visitors.

“People hear about what we’re doing, and they want to do it,” Warren said. “The more people we can give seeds to educate them about milkweed, the more we can build better habitat to give the monarchs safe passage. There’s tremendous satisfaction in that.”


Tags: Oregon, monarch butterfly, wetlands, pollinators

categories Plants & Animals , Conservation Programs, Environment, Farmer & Rancher Stories, Landscape Initiatives

4 response(s) to "Oregon Ranchers Nurture Milkweed, Lure Monarchs"

diana says:

I would like to purchase and plant Milkweed. Is there one specific Milkweed plant that will attract the Monarch butterfly over another milkweed plant?

Pat says:

There are several types of milkweed. All will attract Monarchs to lay their eggs.

Where do you live? There is a Monarch butterfly workshop in Freehold, New Jersey. You can find information and a registration form at They teach you how to find Monarch eggs in the wild and raise them indoors to protect them from predators and bad weather conditions. You get many items including a rearing cage and you are armed with all the information you need.

You can contact them to find other workshops closer to you at

You can also create and certify a Monarch Waystation. Information can be found at It is easy and inexpensive to do.

You can find out

MM Wright says:

The USDA PLANTS database lists 91 species of milkweed. It is a significant omission for NRCS to not mention which species of milkweed was planted on the ranch in Oregon.

An excerpt from the USDA/NRCS Plant Guide for Asclepias tuberosa L.
(butterfly milkweed):
"Milkweed species, as a group, are known to contain cardiac glycosides that are poisonous both to humans and to livestock, as well as other substances that may account for their medicinal effect. Resinoids, glycosides, and a small amount of alkaloids are present in all parts of the plant. Symptoms of poisoning by the cardiac glycosides include dullness, weakness, bloating, inability to stand or walk, high body temperature, rapid and weak pulse, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils, spasms, and coma. "

Another major omission is that there is no mention of the toxicity of these plants that NRCS is urging people to cultivate. Save the monarchs, yes, but do so with complete, and (dare I say it?) unbiased information.

Athena Cholas says:

There is a lot to learn about milkweeds and the NRCS article is a start to increasing awareness about this family of plants. An in-depth publication on milkweeds is available from All species of milkweeds are toxic to livestock and humans. The level of toxicity (caused by cardenolides/cardiac glycosides) varies by species and season. The plant must be ingested and all plant parts are toxic. It is highly unlikely for people or livestock to eat milkweeds, since they are so unpalatable. The most likely cause of livestock poisoning would be feeding hay that contained milkweeds or introducing animals to a pasture with little palatable forage and the animals are not familiar with milkweeds. The publication discusses the pros and cons of using locally sourced milkweeds and non-native species. A table and online link are also provided to find the varieties best suited to a region and known vendors.

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