September 17, 2013

Butterflies miss Maine landfill garden party

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling / Kennebec Journal

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.

click image to enlarge

John Thomas planted four flower gardens at the Oakland Transfer Station but has not seen any monarch butterflies this summer.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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.

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