The Wagley ranch in Mineral Wells is one of the first to participate in the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange Program. Photo courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund. 

April 9, 2018

A ranch in Mineral Wells is one of the first to participate in a new program aimed at keeping the monarch butterfly from going extinct.

The Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange was launched this spring and puts landowners who want to restore monarch habitat on their rangeland and farmland in contact with anyone who wants to directly contribute to their effort, thereby attacking head on the habitat loss that's caused the monarch's decline in the last 25 years.

Developed by a partnership among the Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Incentives, the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab, Monarch Joint Venture and Biodiversity Works, the exchange relies on crowdsourcing to finance habitat restoration throughout the monarch's migration route from Mexico through Texas and onto Canada.

According to David Wolfe, the Texas-based director of conservation strategy and habitat markets at Environmental Defense Fund, the monarch butterfly population has declined by 95 percent in the last two decades. While the situation is dire, he believes the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange has promise.

“I’ve been blown away by the level of interest and passion that producers have specifically for monarchs,” said Wolfe. “If there is any species that landowners see value in protecting, it's the iconic, beloved monarch butterfly."

The exchange pays landowners to adopt monarch-friendly practices and plant milkweed and other wildflowers around cropland, along fence lines, in ditch banks, on grazing land or on any open land that's suitable for monarch habitat.

The exchange pays landowners to adopt monarch-friendly practices and plant milkweed and other wildflowers around cropland, along fence lines, in ditch banks, on grazing land or on any open land that's suitable for monarch habitat.

Wagley Ranch monarch habitat restorationSue and Jay Wagley are among the first in Texas to enroll their land in the program. Their 1,200-acre ranch near Mineral Wells is already being managed to help the endangered golden-cheeked warbler recover; now they're adding strategies to burn off invasive woody vegetation and nonnative weeds to create a wildflower habitat for monarchs.

The site of a previous prescribed burn at the Wagley Ranch in Mineral Wells is covered in a healthy diversity of plants. Courtesy of EDF.

Wagley Ranch Monarch Habitat Exchange ProgramTheir land will become more suitable for cattle grazing as well, which will sustain the commercial value of their property. Once restoration practices are fully in place, the ranch is expected to add 46,395 monarchs to the total population each year.

"The projects currently identified in Texas range in both size, from a few dozen acres to more than a thousand acres; and scope, from milkweed plantings to full prairie restoration," Wolfe adds. "Rust Ranch in Bastrop County, one of the smaller project sizes, has the potential to support 1,236 additional monarchs."


The exchange approaches conservation efforts through enticements rather than mandates. Instead of depending on laws that regulate what landowners can do on their property with stiff fines for violations, the recovery program gives landowners plenty of reasons to want to participate in conservation, such as tax breaks and land improvements, as well as outright payments as a reward for reaching significant goals.

"Depending on the size and scope of the restoration project, landowners can benefit from increased crop pollination, carbon sequestration, reduced soil erosion, more abundant game species, improved water quality and a variety of other ecosystem benefits – not to mention the enjoyment that comes with the natural beauty and wonder of monarchs," Wolfe says. "For Texas landowners, restoring and conserving monarch habitat can help them meet requirements of the wildlife property tax valuation, which is equivalent to an agricultural valuation.

"Landowners will also benefit financially from the new revenue opportunities associated with participation in the exchange, such as cost-sharing for specific activities and receiving outcome-based incentive payments when the restored habitat reaches certain quality levels as defined in their management plan.”


With burnt orange wings outlined in black and a few white spots, the monarch butterfly is an iconic species throughout North America that just about everyone can identify. It was once a common sight that appeared in North Texas each spring as a reminder that summer was on its way, but now it's scarce. The monarch has become a symbol of just how fast a species that numbered more than a billion just 30 years ago can see its population drop to an all-time low of less than 35 million in the last several years.

Although illegal tree cutting in Mexico is ruining their winter hibernation habitat, the main culprit in their disappearance appears to be how farmers and ranchers have increasingly used herbicides to eradicate milkweed from their land. Milkweed is the monarch's host plant and therefore the only wildflower that monarch caterpillars can feed on.

In the mid-1990s, crops that were genetically engineered to withstand applications of weed-killing glyphosate began to be planted on millions of acres that lie in the migratory path of the monarch butterfly. Predictably, herbicide use skyrocketed, and both milkweed and the monarch butterfly have been vanishing from the American landscape ever since. 


The Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange was created to reverse this disappearance and is aimed at the farmers and ranchers who hold the fate of the monarch in their hands.

Monarch Habitat ExchangeCrowdsourcing allows the exchange to tap into a variety of funding sources, from private donors and small businesses to larger corporations and even state and Federal agencies. This mix of contributors makes the exchange a more viable solution for monarch recovery than relying solely on legislators to prioritize monarch habitat restoration in their spending bills. Unlike government conservation programs that issue block grants for various state agencies to parcel out to landowners, the exchange is a market-based solution with a rigorous cost-benefit analysis behind its funding decisions, says Wolfe.

Amy and George Greer are participants in the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange at their Winters-Wall Ranch near Brady, Texas. Courtesy of EDF.

"The Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange is a 21st century conservation solution that enables crowdsourcing of habitat protection, enhancement and restoration from key allies: farmers and ranchers," Wolfe says. "The exchange pairs public and private investors – from state wildlife agencies to food companies – with those on the ground who are equipped to adopt the necessary conservation activities at the scale and pace needed.

"The program is considered market-based because there is no fixed price. The cost of restoration is specific to the outcomes that each site can provide, and the exchange works to allocate funding to the projects that can have the most benefit for the lowest cost.

"This is where the exchange, using market forces, is able to maximize the benefits per dollar invested and, with increased participation over time, ultimately drive the cost down. With limited funds available for conservation, we need to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of every dollar we spend, and market-based solutions are the best way to do this."


When landowners contact the exchange to participate in the program, their projects are evaluated by the exchange's Habitat Quantification Tool that measures the land's capacity for breeding and foraging habitat while spotting threats, such as pesticide drift from nearby land. The tool also approximates the number of thriving monarch butterflies that are likely to be produced by the project each year.

EDF team for Monarch Butterfly Exchange programThe result is a habitat quality score that rules out land that's unlikely to benefit the butterflies while ensuring that money received from donors will be spent on the projects that will boost the monarch population the most. Because the exchange's technical experts monitor all projects and report back on the progress being made, contributors are kept active in the exchange's work as investors, not just donors.

The EDF science team working on the Rust Ranch in Bastrop County.

"Investors and donors benefit by knowing that their dollars are achieving the maximum benefit for monarch butterflies," Wolfe says. "With robust science and accounting, the exchange ensures that each dollar provides the most bang for the buck, and for the butterfly."

The exchange currently operates in Texas, California and Missouri, with approximately 3,000 acres enrolled in the program right now. About 2,900 acres are committed to habitat restoration in Texas, which is the first state the butterflies encounter as they emerge from hibernation in Mexico and start their journey northward, rested and hungry for nectar.

About 2,900 acres are committed to habitat restoration in Texas, which is the first state the butterflies encounter as they emerge from hibernation in Mexico and start their journey northward, rested and hungry for nectar.

Landowners must enroll a minimum of five acres in the exchange to participate in Texas. In other states, the minimum is one acre. Wolfe explains the different requirements: 

"The opportunities to restore and conserve monarch habitat in California and Missouri on private lands are limited mostly to the farm landscape. In this scenario, projects are often limited to field edges, buffer zones and corners of irrigated fields, which are often relatively limited in size. In Texas, much of the potential habitat is on rangelands, which are relatively expansive and provide opportunities for larger projects."


As to benefits for contributors, Wolfe says the exchange offers plenty of promotional opportunities for companies that want to connect with their market by showing that they share their customers' concern for the environment. Additionally, companies have a chance to enhance their reputation as good corporate citizens, which aids in employee recruitment and retention while reducing a company's susceptibility to potential regulatory pressures and negative public perception.

Monarch butterfly Individual donors enjoy seeing their donations at work and knowing that they're responsible for adding butterflies back to the wild. As the program progresses, the exchange will offer training to anyone interested in learning how to use the Monarch Habitat Quantification Tool to assess the monarch habitat in their region, Wolfe says.

Courtesy of Storyblock.

As with popular crowdfunding websites, the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange allows contributors to browse through a catalog of current projects in need of funding. The registry outlines the details for each project, such as its current status, how much acreage is enrolled and the date by which the project goals are expected to be reached. It also gives a brief description of the land and what needs to be done to make it suitable for monarchs. The habitat's current quality score is shown as well as the score anticipated once the project is complete. Most importantly, contributors can see how many monarchs each project will sustain.

Wolfe says the program involves far more than the preservation of butterflies. Because the prairies where monarchs thrive are also essential for food production and clean water, the exchange ultimately benefits everyone.

"Biodiversity is essential to all life on earth. Humans would not be able to survive and thrive without the air, water, food, fuel, fiber, medicines and more that all come from natural resources. The monarch butterfly may be one species, but it's an indicator of the health of the entire prairie ecosystem, which is essential for other pollinators that assist in pollinating crops that provide the food we eat," Wolfe says. 

"There's a lot at stake, because the monarch is many children's first experience with nature, especially in the classroom where they first learn about the butterfly's magical migration. We can't deprive future generations the miracle of monarchs." 

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