‘The goal is to help monarch butterflies’

NDSU students are doing important research to protect and preserve pollinators on North Dakota rangelands.

Graduate student Ellysa Johnson spends long days in the prairie at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center just outside Streeter, North Dakota, documenting flowering plants butterflies could use for food. She checks each leaf and inside the buds of milkweed plants for traces of caterpillars or eggs from monarch butterflies.

Johnson is a second-year graduate student in the natural resources management program. She’s studying the impact of rangeland management systems on the monarch butterfly population.

“We’re trying to see how monarchs, and particularly their food resources that they require to continue living and increase their populations, how those react to different management strategies in rangelands,” she said. “The monarch butterfly population has declined by about 80 percent in the last two decades or so. We want to help them bounce back.”

To test this, Johnson studies three management strategies: patch burn grazing system, season-long grazing system and rotational grazing system. Typically, North Dakota farmers have a season-long grazing system that utilizes heavy grazing. This style depletes the food sources of monarch butterfly populations.

The goal of Johnson’s research isn’t to prevent farmers from using the vast amount of rangeland in the state, but to understand what impact different land management strategies have on monarch butterfly food sources and population growth.

“The main goal is to see how these treatments differ,” she said. “And to see which one potentially has the most, or is correlated with the most, milkweed and flowers. The ultimate goal is to provide guided strategies for landowners to use to help monarch butterflies.”

Johnson has raised monarchs every summer since she was a kid. Monarch research at NDSU was a perfect fit when she went looking for graduate student opportunities.

She gets excited every time she finds a monarch in the field.

“The thrill of seeking a monarch is definitely the most exciting part of this research,” she said. “They’re not elusive. They’re really large and they’re kind of awkward fliers. But when you see them, you’re like yay, you’re here!”

For a closer look at Johnson’s NDSU experience and NDSU monarch butterfly research, visit the official university YouTube channel.

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