Nebraska has a new target in mind to help keep monarch butterflies and other pollinators off the federal endangered species list: Grow 125 million new milkweed stems in the state by 2020.

That's precisely one-twelfth of the mark a committee of North American wildlife managers set in 2015 for all 12 states in the Corn Belt that are frequented by monarchs.

Amassing that much milkweed is a tall task. A single plant averages about seven stems.

"Participation by many groups may be the only way to conserve migration and breeding habitat for monarchs, avert a threatened or endangered listing of the species, and prevent decline of other pollinators," a consortium of butterfly boosters and other interested parties wrote in a recently released draft plan.

The plan was crafted by staff at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, with input from dozens of organizations and businesses, including 55 who sent representatives to a summit on monarchs in Lincoln in February 2016.

A copy of the draft plan is available on the commission's website, and public input is welcome.

Monarchs winter in the Mexican highlands, coating a tiny patch of mountainous forest with millions of brilliant orange-and-black wings from October through March.

In spring, they fan out east of the Continental Divide, with females laying their tiny, greenish-white eggs on milkweed plants and feasting on other flowers along the way.

But the eastern monarch population has dropped an estimated 90 percent in the past two decades, in large part because of habitat loss.

That includes the conversion of a "staggering" 53 million acres of grassland — an area about the size of Kansas — to cropland in the Great Plains since 2009, according to World Wildlife Fund data cited in the draft plan.

While many plants can provide nectar for adult pollinators, milkweed is particularly important to monarchs because it contains cardiac glycosides, which are toxins to most other creatures and protect adult monarchs and their caterpillars against would-be predators.

Monarchs also lay eggs on invasive species such as the Louise’s or European swallow-wort, but those plants cannot sustain monarch larvae. 

Efforts to help monarchs — such as planting milkweed and other flowering plants, and careful application of herbicides and pesticides — can also benefit other pollinators that are potentially at risk.

Those include bumblebees, married underwing and Whitney underwing moths, and less-lionized butterflies such as the tawny crescent, regal fritillary, Colorado Rita dotted-blue, Iowa skipper, mottled duskywing, two-spotted skipper, Bucholz black dash and Ottoe skipper.

Several Corn Belt states have been meeting periodically to come up with a regional plan to conserve pollinators, but a final agreement is probably years away.

"Nebraska decided to be proactive," said Melissa Panella, a fish and wildlife biologist with the Game and Parks Commission who focuses on at-risk species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already been petitioned to consider listing monarchs as threatened or endangered. Panella said the federal government will wait until at least 2019 to decide, after assessing states' progress at improving butterfly populations.

Nebraska's plan includes dozens of recommendations, such as planting additional milkweed on public lands such as state parks, trail corridors and golf courses; providing incentives for farmers to incorporate milkweed and other pollinator habitat into their land; even adjusting right-of-way mowing schedules to protect plants at critical times.

"I think a big part of it is just an awareness and an acceptance of milkweed — that milkweed is an important part of our ecosystem," Panella said.

Unlike some other wildlife, just about anyone can get involved in helping monarchs because they don't need large expanses of prairie to thrive.

"It's a great opportunity for homeowners or gardeners," Panella said.

Conservation groups are also chipping in on a larger scale.

Pheasants Forever recently awarded grants to 19 landowners across the state to plant habitat for honeybees, native bees and monarchs. Applications for that program, which is new this year, were very competitive, said Kelsi Wehrman, state coordinator for Pheasants Forever.

The Game and Parks Commission is planting more than 25,000 milkweed seedlings along the Cowboy Trail and other land owned by the commission, a project funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation and the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

The commission is also seeking federal money to restore pollinator habitat on private land managed by the Northern Prairies Land Trust and the Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Private companies also provide grants for entities interested in restoring pollinator habitat, such as Bayer's Feed a Bee program.

"There are a number of projects that are in the works," Panella said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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