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A feast fit for a monarch

Western monarch butterflies migrating between the Southern Oregon coast and the South Cascades will soon get fresh patches of strategically placed milkweed and other nectar-bearing plants to create needed habitat on this leg of their storied journey through here.

A group of public and private entities, led by the Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project, have landed a $193,000 foundation grant to restore and enhance 300 acres of western monarch habitat stretched across six sites along key migration paths through Southern Oregon.

Monarchs that winter along the California coast migrate along this route and the projects are strategically placed like stepping stones along that pathway.

"This is the epicenter of the migratory route," says botanist Clint Emerson from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which is one of the participants in this habitat collaborative. "That makes this compelling."

The plants will be grown at the federal government's J. Herbert Stone Nursery in Central Point that will be planted along with milkweed seeds on public and private lands, including several plots already cleared and prepped for other restoration projects, Lomaktsi Executive Director Marko Bey says.

The plants include three locally native species of milkweed and 26 other plants such as coyote mint, winecup clarkia and harvest brodiaea, Emerson says.

While all the plants help butterflies, bees and other pollinators, the milkweed is tied closely to western monarchs' life cycles.

Adult females lay their eggs in milkweed, and the ensuing caterpillars dine solely on milkweed before forming a chrysalis, from which they emerge as the royal-looking orange- and black-winged butterfly.

Monarchs produce four generations annually, each one making a portion of the migration between Washington and Idaho through Oregon and down to California and even Mexico.

In recent years, private groups like the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates have cultivated small milkweed patches for butterflies called way stations, "but this is a large-scale restoration effort," says Robert Coffan of SOMA, which joins Lomakatsi, the forest and four other public and private entities in this project.

Restoration sites include 60 acres of Rogue River-Siskiyou forest land along the coast, 60 more acres of Forest Service land on the western slopes of the Cascades near Mount McLoughlin, another 60 acres at Table Rocks and 120 acres of public and private lands in the Ashland-Colestin area.

Some of those lands already have been cleared and prepped as part of other Lomakatsi projects, including the Ashland Forest All-Lands Restoration Project in the Ashland watershed known as AFAR.

That was important because the foundation grant did not cover site-preparation work, Bey says.

"It was a real plus that we're laying this over other habitat projects," Bey says.

Most of the work will be done in early 2017, Bey says.

Emerson says the multi-species plantings are different than milkweed way stations because they will create ecosystem-based landscapes instead of gardened plots of a single species.

The grant was one of several totaling $3 million doled out by the foundation's Monarch Conservation Fund and the only one targeting western monarch habitat. The lion's share went to the eastern monarchs and their famously arduous migration journeys.

Coffan says western monarchs generally get stiffed in the funding world.

"But we raised the flag a little bit and somebody saw the flag," Coffan says. "I'm happy with it."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Migrating monarch butterflies will soon get a boost to 300 acres of habitat in Southern Oregon. Mail Tribune file photo.