Audubon, EDF Aim To Create Butterfly Habitats At Golf Courses

Jan 29, 2018

Audubon International and the Environmental Defense Fund are teaming up with golf courses across the U.S., Canada and Mexico to create habitats for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. One golf course in the lower Hudson Valley has been providing monarch habitat for years.

Audubon and EDF are offering the first 100 participants in the “Monarchs in the Rough” program free and regionally appropriate milkweed seeds, enough to establish one acre of habitat. Marcus Gray is Audubon’s director of the Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf. He recommends planting the milkweed seeds with a native wildflower mix. Gray says golf courses occupy some 2.5 million acres in the U.S., and Audubon estimates that at least 100,000 acres have the potential to become suitable habitat for butterflies.

“So, New York state has almost 1,000, 995 or so about, golf courses, so there’s a great opportunity to create habitat for pollinators across the state,” Gray says.

Gray says that in the last 20 years, monarch butterflies have declined by 90 percent.

“Since the 1980s, butterflies generally, across all species, had declined by 40 percent,” Gray says. “And so you think back to a time when you may have been a child, or listeners may have been children and they think about all the butterflies and moths and things that used to be flying around. You’d drive down the road and you’d have to periodically, if you were on a road trip, you’d have to stop at a gas station and clean the windshield off. It’s not really the case anymore.”

Matt Ceplo is a certified golf course superintendent at Rockland Country Club, which has signed up for “Monarchs in the Rough.” Ceplo, also an Audubon International board member, says he has been implementing such a program for years but, first, he had to educate members on why the country club would want to keep milkweed. Here’s how the show-and-tell worked.

“By finding the caterpillars on the milkweed and setting up an aquarium inside the clubhouse where the members could watch the caterpillars go from the caterpillar stage to the larval stage to the butterfly stage, so it actually became the poster child and we were able to use that as the reason why we weren’t eliminating it,” Ceplo says.

Plus, he says the areas with milkweed and other native plants represent cost savings as these areas require little maintenance.

“You don’t have to water these things. They’re pretty much foolproof, once they’re established. Getting them established is the hard part, for sure,” says Ceplo. “And, I think, if I had to tell other superintendents or anybody trying to establish native plants, especially meadows, that you just need to give it time, I would say a minimum of three seasons.”

Once established, though, he says the plants are bulletproof. “Monarchs in the Rough” provides golf course superintendents and staff with the information and technical support they need to incorporate monarch habitat into their particular courses. Audubon’s Gray says that as large landowners, golf courses are uniquely positioned to help reverse habitat loss and save monarchs, providing a much-needed refuge while increasing the beauty and sustainability of their courses.

“The monarch butterfly is the impetus and the focal species of this but, really, there are 724 other species of butterfly north of Mexico,” Gray says. “And New York has probably 150 other species that’ll benefit from plantings like this.”

Gray hopes that butterfly habitat creation goes beyond golf courses.

“This program is intended, right now, at this stage, and the support level that we have, to work on golf courses proper but, the idea is because they’re so visible and that so many people will see them, that they will take away an understanding, a greater understanding of the larger landscape level issues and support habitat work off of golf courses, at their home or businesses, places where they live, work and play,” Gray says.

Gray says a number of golf courses in the Northeast have signed up, including 10 in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts — Wyantenuck Country Club in Great Barrington.