OAKLAND — Transfer station manager Johnny Thomas spent a year preparing a garden of nectar-filled wildflowers to feed monarch butterflies as they head south to winter breeding grounds in Mexico.
The rugged Oakland resident has been passionate about helping the delicate creatures ever since this time last year, when he watched dozens of monarchs spend hours at a small strip of wildflowers alongside the landfill.
This year, the butterflies never came.
A sharp drop in global monarch populations is the latest development in Thomas’ quest to turn the nation’s dumps and landfills into something more.
Earlier this year, Thomas sought permission from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to transform the town’s 12-acre landfill into a giant flower-filled feeding ground where weary migrating butterflies and hummingbirds could stop to rest and sip nectar before continuing on their journeys.
However, there are concerns that the flowers’ roots could penetrate a 2-foot-thick layer of clay, buried under 6 inches of topsoil, designed to prevent water from reaching the mountain of garbage, much of it toxic, that lies beneath.
Thomas said he knows that certain plant species would harm the cap. He has seen a burdock root drill a hole through all 2 feet of the clay. Other species, the ones he advocates using, have shallow root systems that shouldn’t pose the same threat, he said.
Thomas and the state agreed to an experiment. They created two small test sites where, in July, Thomas planted 43 species of flowers, a mix of annuals, perennials and biannuals chosen in part for their short root systems.
Each flower is also a source of nectar, which provides critical energy to the monarchs in the form of carbohydrates and amino acids, according to Monarch Watch, an organization based at the University of Kansas dedicated to studying and saving monarchs.
Now many of the flowers on the landfill are in full bloom. The monarch migration, which begins in mid-August, is in full swing. But the only creatures taking advantage of the free food so far are honeybees, Thomas said.
Thomas said he’s spoken with others in the area who also have reported dramatically reduced sightings this year.
It’s a marked contrast with last year, when Thomas watched butterflies, some of which can flit hundreds of miles in just a few days, rest on their journey from north to south.
Maine’s monarchs aren’t the only ones that are missing.
In March, the World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico chapter announced that the number of monarch butterflies that wintered in Mexico last year was down an alarming 59 percent from the previous year and was also the lowest number observed since 1975, the earliest year on record.
Scientists blamed the population crash on a number of factors, the most pressing of which is the loss of milkweeds, the plants where female monarchs lay their eggs. Milkweeds are threatened by the use of genetically modified herbicide-resistant corn and soybean varieties, human development, and the replacement of 25 million acres of grassland and rangeland with corn and soybeans used for biofuel, according to the report.
The monarch population crash also was caused by deforestation in their winter grounds in Mexico, and unusual weather patterns that were not conducive to their survival, the report said.
Thomas said his campaign to help the delicate creatures has taken on a new sense of urgency and begun attracting support from near and far.
“Hopefully, if we can get this rolling, it can help save them,” he said.
In the fall of 2014, after the biannual flowers have had an opportunity to grow and bloom, Thomas is confident that the experiment will have proven the flowers don’t harm the clay cap at the landfill.
If he’s right, his first order of business will be to cover all 12 acres with flowers, which will benefit not only the butterflies, but also hummingbirds and various bee species, he said.
After that, Thomas, whose cause has drawn coverage from various media outlets, plans to encourage managers of Maine’s 400 landfills to follow his example by planting their own butterfly gardens.
He’s already been in touch with a transfer station in Saco, he said, which includes 250 acres of plantable landfill. He said he’s also spoken with a New Hampshire organization seeking to save the endangered blue butterfly, a species that doesn’t occur locally because it is dependent on pitch pine, but which Thomas said could be helped by landfill managers in the western part of the state.
In all, Thomas estimates that there could be 6,000 acres of landfill in Maine, and millions of acres across the country.
Researchers intend to document the number of butterflies that winter in Mexico this year and hope that better weather conditions will contribute to a rebound.
In the meantime, Thomas said, he is still managing the landfill to support all wildlife, not just butterflies and hummingbirds.
He has lobbied the town successfully to delay its annual mowing cycle until after local plants have had a chance to bear seed, which he said helps to provide food for birds and small mammals. The long grass also makes the landfill a favorite hiding spot for young deer and wild turkeys, he said, two of many species he regularly sees there. Using discarded junk, Thomas has built customized bluebird nesting boxes that can rest atop the landfill without killing grass or hurting the clay cap.
Next year, Thomas said, he believes a new generation of monarchs, favored, perhaps, by better weather and newly planted milkweed, will return, driven southward by their age-old instinctual urge to escape the region’s deadly frosts.
If the butterflies come back next year, he’ll be waiting to help them on their way.
If they don’t, he said, he’ll wait for them anyway.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: [email protected]