Saving Pollinator Habitats Focus of Joint Initiative Between Transportation Cabinet, Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves

Swamp milkweed attracts pollinators
Swamp milkweed attracts pollinators. Photo courtesy of OKNP.

By Brad Bowman

The endangered Monarch butterfly, which is experiencing a rapid population decline due to habitat loss, as well as other crucial pollinators, may be looking at a brighter future thanks to a joint initiative by the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves (OKNP) and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC).

The two agencies have teamed up to provide an important habitat for pollinating insects — along state and federal highways.

“We’ve essentially lost the majority of our native grassland habitats,” said OKNP Environmental Control Supervisor Tara Littlefield. “It has dwindled down from millions of acres…to small disjunct habitat parcels.”

While most of Kentucky’s grasslands have been transformed for agricultural or commercial use, these roadsides are kept from development. As a result, these small pockets of native grasslands have survived, Littlefield said. The goal of the program is to identify, preserve and effectively manage these roadside habitats to bolster pollinator populations.

“Human beings have left a very big impact on the world at large, and we are seeing a lot of these (pollinator) ecosystems disappearing,” said Cassondra Cruikshank, an environmentalist biologist specialist with KYTC’s Division of Environmental Analysis. 

As part of the collaboration, botanists with OKNP last year began identifying native grassland areas on Kentucky’s federal and state roadways. To date, OKNP botanists have surveyed about 7,000 miles of Kentucky roadways in 23 counties. The joint initiative builds upon KYTC’s federally funded project to install pollinator plots, which began in 2019.

Purple milkweed grows near a roadside
Purple milkweed grows near a roadside. Photo courtesy of the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves.

The joint effort has involved logistic coordination between staff on the road, aerial maps and “virtual driving” using Google Earth satellite imagery. OKNP staff has evaluated more than 90 sites, identified sites for conservation and documented 16 new rare plant populations on Kentucky roadsides that support habitats. 

“Every week we were able to gather real-time data to see our progress,” Littlefield said. “When we did find good quality pollinator habitats, we got that information to KYTC so those areas wouldn’t be mowed.” 

The OKNP expects to have the entire state survey completed within five years. These protected areas will also help in developing new sites.

OKNP Executive Director Zeb Weese said the sites have different species of plants and grasses, which require different management approaches. The site surveys also allow OKNP to expand its database of rare species and can be used for further conservation efforts.

botanist stands on a pollinator plot in Logan County, Kentucky
OKNP botanist Vanessa Voelker stands on a pollinator plot in Logan County. Photo courtesy of OKNP.

The surveyed area covers central Kentucky as far north as Trimble County to as far south as Simpson County. These areas contained native grasses like Little and Big bluestem, areas with native sunflowers and blazing stars, Littlefield said. 

The creation of pollinator habitats could provide long-term savings in taxpayer dollars, said KYTC Roadside Environment State Administrator Mike Smith, whose branch oversees vegetation maintenance on 27,500 centerline miles of state highways. The proactive mitigation efforts, he said, could minimize future costs associated with improvements that would have to be made if the Monarch butterfly or other pollinator species were listed as endangered in the future.

Native roadside vegetation also attracts a greater variety of pollinating insects that also benefit surrounding crops. 

“Somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of the agriculture we have in Kentucky is pollinator reliant,” Cruikshank said. “…If we don’t do something to stabilize and grow their populations it will be too late. We need ecosystems with a lot of variety to sustain not only our wildlands, but ourselves.”

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