Scott Ball / Rivard Report
It's been just one year since Mayor Ivy Taylor set the bar for the National Wildlife Federation's Mayor's Monarch Pledge (MMP).
On December 9, 2015, Mayor Taylor made San Antonio the nation's first Monarch Butterfly Champion City by committing to all 24 recommendations on the NWF action items list to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. Actions range from citizen science projects and installing pollinator gardens in highly visible public spaces to hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.
Since, more than 240 cities have signed the MMP. Only one other city – McAllen, Texas – has become a Monarch Champion City like San Antonio. The National Wildlife Federation is even looking to expand the popular program to Mexico.
"The San Antonio administration and landscape team have really committed themselves to Monarch conservation," said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science organization that tracks the migrating butterflies at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. "San Antonio was the first city to call us about milkweeds native to their area. ... If I recall correctly, we arranged to have one of our cooperating nurseries send them 1,000 plants."
Those milkweeds have been planted in pollinator gardens around the City.
Right on the San Antonio River just south of the Nueva Street Bridge, almost 1,400 square feet of water-guzzling St. Augustine grass was removed by the City of San Antonio this summer to install a garden of diverse native and well-adapted plants, including several species of Monarch Watch-supplied milkweeds, the Monarch butterflies' host plant.
Invasive species on the South Channel were replaced with native Pickerel Weed, a lovely purple bloomer that attracts butterflies, bees, and beetles. The City also recently installed another pollinator garden at the Guenther boat ramp near Blue Star as part of the landscape retrofitting.
On the north side, Phil Hardberger Park has become a butterfly and pollinator haven. The park offers a butterfly meadow, butterfly garden, learning center, hatch house, and two official Monarch butterfly waystations. Through partnerships with the Alamo Area Naturalists and other organizations, Hardberger Park boasts educational butterfly programming like butterfly hikes, counts, and hands-on classes.
In April, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) dedicated 6.8 acres of open space on their campus to Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. UTSA also received $300,000 from the Texas State Comptroller's Office in 2015 to survey Texas milkweeds. The grant resulted because the Monarch butterfly is under consideration for listing as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. In Texas, the Comptroller's Office is charged with investigating the business impacts of such possibilities.
For Fiesta 2016, four city agencies featured the Monarch butterfly on their Fiesta medals – the Mayor's Office, SAWS, CPS Energy, and the San Antonio River Authority. In a survey of 400 locals conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch website, the SAWS medal was voted the best Monarch-themed Fiesta medal.
San Antonio also has been home to at least two Monarch butterfly festivals in the past year. The first Monarch Fest kicked off the Monarchs' journey north from Mexico in March and was staged by the San Antonio Zoo. In October, the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival took place at the Pearl.
Both festivals featured plant sales, native seed giveaways, and heavy doses of public awareness. The latter included a citizen science component that resulted in the tagging of more than 550 butterflies during peak Monarch migration week in San Antonio and art show art at the Institute of Mexican Culture featuring Mexican Monarch-inspired textiles, sculpture, and photography. Also, a symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration took place. All of these are action items that can be checked off the NWF list.
According to Cathy Downs, a Monarch Conservation Specialist for the national citizen scientist program Monarch Watch, Mayor Taylor's committment to make San Antonio a Monarch Champion City resulted in more requests this year for teacher training on how to use Monarch butterflies in the classroom.
"We've seen an uptick in schoolyard gardens and in post-graduate teacher training," said Downs, who's based in Comfort. She added that while interest in Monarchs has existed for years, in the last 12 months, educators have been taking it a step further by integrating Monarch butterflies, their metamorphosis, and reliance on native milkweeds into STEM curriculum. One of the post grad programs was a six-hour workshop with 40 students, Downs said.
In August, the NWF's Southwest Regional Coordinator for Monarch Outreach Grace Barnett moved from Austin to San Antonio with her husband, Adam. Barnett travels around Texas meeting with other localities regarding Monarch conservation. For the past six months, she has been working with San Antonio nonprofit organizations and pollinator advocates to establish a San Antonio Monarch Conservation Plan.
The first meeting occurred in May with 35 in attendance. Under the banner, Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative, the group has been meeting consistently in breakout sessions devoted to increasing outreach, habitat, and citizen science. The collaborative just finished a first draft of a citywide conservation plan, which will be finalized and implemented in early 2017.
The City's Sustainability Office has also worked pollinator friendly guidelines into its strategic plans. Last year, the City's Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick said the mayor’s pledge was not “just talk.” He suggested it would bring about real change.
“This will positively impact how we manage City-owned land,” he said.
While enforcement remains an open question, the City has come through with pollinator-friendly language incorporated into the SA Tomorrow Plan. The document specifically suggests "the use of native milkweed and nectar plants at city properties." Integrated pest management is encouraged over pesticides use. General water conservation tactics, strategies for increasing biodiversity and wildlife habitats, and encouragement of Low Impact Development (LID) pepper the document.
The San Antonio River Authority is in the process of renovating the landscaping outside their headquarters on the South Channel of the San Antonio River using LID tactics and pollinator-friendly approaches mentioned in the plan.
"The rain gardens we have installed at our office buildings will improve water quality, and native plant species will provide valuable urban habitat for pollinator species," said Steven Schauer, River Authority spokesman. The headquarters retrofit follows a similar pollinator-friendly upgrade to the River Authority's Euclid office earlier this year.
Upon signing the Mayor's Monarch Pledge, Mayor Taylor's office also said she would install a pollinator garden at her Dignowity Hill residence and possibly at Dignowity Hill Park. To date, that has not happened – but it's coming soon.
Ruben Lizalde, special projects coordinator for the mayor who has worked on the Pledge and attended many meetings on Monarch conservation, shared a photo of Mikey, a Monarch caterpillar, destined for the Mayor's house.
The caterpillar noshes contentedly indoors at City Hall on a potted Tropical milkweed plant as temperatures dip below caterpillar comfort levels, Lizalde said.
"This is one of three milkweed plants for the mayor's pocket pollinator garden," he said. "We also have a nectar plant, but until the weather gets better, they will be here at City Hall."
DISCLOSURE: Monika Maeckle served as a volunteer organizer/director of the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in October. The Rivard Report was a media sponsor for the event.