Nicodemus Wilderness Project
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NWP Global Registry of Apprentice Ecologists - Telluride, Colorado, USA

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Telluride, Colorado, USA
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Registered: March 2018
City/Town/Province: Telluride
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Orange Lacquer

Monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico's Oyamel forests en masse and weigh down the fir boughs in an orange lacquer. Historically, lepidopterans concentrated by the millions in this specific region every winter. Butterflies weren’t arriving when I visited Michoacan. The townsfolk and biologists were worried. Locals shook their heads sadly. Nada.

That’s when I became obsessed with the plight of these endangered insects, and began to help the Monarch myself. I researched. The reading stunned me — I discovered 6,000 acres of monarch habitat are lost daily due to pesticide application. The main issue? The loss of milkweed, a pink-flowering plant that is the exclusive food of the Monarch caterpillar. Cardiac glycosides in the plant accumulate in the caterpillar and give the caterpillar and ultimately, the butterfly a protective poison. Predators learn to avoid the brightly colored butterfly. Despite this protection, monarch populations have collapsed. But my dreams haven't.

Alpine Native Forbs and Grasses Revegetation Project was borne from my urgency to make a difference. Using money earned from selling shade-grown Papua New Guinea coffee, I bought a small greenhouse and pulled planting trays from the dumpster behind local nursery. Asclepias speciosa beckoned me. The iconic milkweed plant grew alongside the ditch near my grandmother’s Denver home. I collected the burgeoning seedpods. Their broken open seams revealed brown discus seeds tightly packed against one another like fish scales. Each of these attached to a silken parachute. These were the same seeds which inspired Henry Thoreau to lovingly declare; “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Botanist Christine Taliga, a revegetation specialist for the National Park Service, advised me. She mentored me and ensured that I had pure strains of Colorado seeds that were indigenous to southwestern Colorado. Alongside the milkweed, I germinated Blue Flax, Rocky Mountain penstemon, lupine, blue grama, Mountain Muhly, Thurber’s fescue, and buffalo grass. These grasses and forbs were meant to enrich the revegetation seed mix and attract other native pollinator species. Cold-stratified seeds produce a higher rate of germination. In this vain, I subjected my seeds to Telluride’s single digit temperatures and dreamed of a prolific springtime germination.

The seedlings did not disappoint, and they filled trays with their ambitious promise. The leggy sprouts were moved into our large school greenhouse, affectionately named the “Grow Dome”. I have been a peer educator in this living classroom since middle school, and shared my passion for botany and the agrarian lifestyle with our entire community through lessons I taught in the dome. The seedlings provided inspiration and joy for local students and the hands-on experience was an outstanding way to introduce them to the plight of the monarch butterfly. Students felt they were making a difference by raising seedlings. I was gaining momentum, and Telluride’s Open Space Commission approved my presentation and plan for a revegetation garden. They allowed me use of a small tract of land where I began my experimental plot. It is located on the “Valley Floor”, the town’s 500 acre conservation easement. I worked tirelessly to tend the revegetation plot, removing noxious non-native plants like knapweed, dandelions and mountain timothy. The cleared plot provided a blank slate to plant the milkweed seedlings, native grasses, and forbs. These natives soon flourished, a flash of color and hope amongst a sea of non-native contenders. By summer the plot was a native floral array. Its beauty was not overlooked by hungry pollinators either.

Not only has the revegetation plot provided a seed bank for future restoration efforts, but it also served and continues to serve as a multi-faceted educational tool. When I produce and host my local KOTO radio show “Voices of the Valley Floor-and Fauna”, the community has the opportunity to discover environmental intrigues that otherwise may go unnoticed. A focal point of the show this year was to update listeners on the progress of the native plants and the invertebrate pollinators that visit the revegetation plot. Observations included sightings of native bees, native flies, butterflies, and moths. The showcase plot caught the attention of visiting naturalists, Scott Black. He is the director of the Xerces Society and he is also a major advocate of pollinator gardens, pollinator highway strips and monarch conservation. He encouraged me that the milkweed plants would help attract endangered monarchs to the region. As a kudo for my efforts, my revegetation plot was highlighted in the Xerces Society journal called Wings.

Throughout the project, I presented regular updates to the Open Space Commission and the board commended my success this year. Realizing that I was leaving for college this fall, we discussed options for continuing the revegetation efforts and replicating it on a larger scale. The commission discussed setting aside financial resources needed for expansion plots and their maintenance. My project will serve as a “template” for future revegetation efforts.

The revegetation plot is a crown jewel of success in my conservation efforts, and the milkweed came into full summer bloom. There beneath a silver waxy leaf, I spotted a delicate line of monarch eggs. Imagine my joy when I spotted an orange and black beauty fluttering on the Valley Floor this autumn. It was the first time we had ever spotted a monarch in our valley. I had good reason to believe it had metamorphosed from a milkweed host plant, growing in the plot. Hard work brings change, but it wasn’t without the fuel of my dreams.

Armed with the hope the butterfly represented for me, I set off for college. I am currently an Environmental Science major at Dartmouth College. I have been employed at the Life Sciences Center Greenhouse for the winter quarter, and have been taking Environmental Studies classes with the hopes of visiting the Oyamel forest again. Perhaps the paradigm of milkweed revegetation will make a difference to future lepidopteran populations. I will continue to carry the torch of my work into a future career and hope that someday I may be treated to the wildlife spectacle of their massive orange biomass draping the fir trees. Whether I see one or one thousand monarchs, here in America or in Mexico...I do believe in and live by the ethic that Margaret Mead so presciently stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Date: December 31, 2018 Views: 5335 File size: 18.7kb, 291.0kb : 960 x 1280
Hours Volunteered: 200
Volunteers: 50
Authors Age & Age Range of Volunteers: 18 & 3 to 60
Area Restored for Native Wildlife (hectares): 4
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