By Carin Tunney

The nation’s largest landowners can make a big difference. That’s the idea behind a new initiative that targets utility and transportation sectors to sign onto monarch preservation efforts.

The Monarch Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) is a new program that relies on land surveys and adaptive land management strategies to help restore monarch habitats and grow the monarch population. The Eastern monarch population has declined from about 384 million 25 years ago to an estimated 60 million in 2019.

We enrolled 259,506 acres in the CCAA program, which includes land around electric and gas distribution and transmission lines, service centers and dams. The program has set a 2-million-acre goal.

“Large-scale landowners like Consumers Energy can make significant contributions to monarch conservation by managing some of their lands in ways that provide habitat to monarchs and other pollinators,” said Lori Nordstrom, the assistant regional director for ecological services for the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “From milkweed for monarch caterpillars to flowers for nectar-feeding adults, this habitat gives monarchs the resources they need at various life stages.”

Monarch butterflies aren’t currently listed as endangered. The butterflies’ endangered status is up for review in 2024. Nordstrom said the hope is the national CCAA effort will keep monarchs off the list.

Participants work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to survey designated lands. If the lands aren’t suitable to attract butterflies, participants step in, said Rob Bates, a Consumers Energy wildlife biologist who specializes in endangered species.

“There is more than one way to try to help,” Bates said. “It can be as simple as going in and planting milkweed. That’s a big trigger, no milkweed, no caterpillars, no butterflies. If we don’t meet the milkweed or nectar plant counts in our annual study plots, we would try to do more like removing woody vegetation and invasive species to help the native plants to return.”

Financially, when companies commit to the CCAA program’s sustainable environmental practices, it shortens the permit process to operate on lands with suitable habitat for the monarch and other endangered species. Bates said replacing grass around service centers with pollinator habitats in the future also means less maintenance.

“As a company, we follow best practices in our standard work,” he said. “Whether it’s pole replacement or forestry, we don’t just have to account for the monarch butterfly, we have to account for every listed species that may be present.”

Experts say climate change and pesticide use contributed to the monarch butterflies’ decline. The monarch is unique in its long-distance migration from Mexico in the winter to primarily the Midwest in the summer. Michigan is a popular destination.

Projects like these are part of our land goal to enhance, restore and protect 5,000 acres of Michigan land by 2023.

Bates said he’s proud to help reach that goal.

“For me personally, it’s what I wanted to do growing up and eventually went to college for,” he said. “Knowing that I am working for a company that’s already committed to leaving the planet better than we found it, and to be part of that progress, gives me hope. I have kids, and it makes me feel good to know I am doing something positive for their future.”