Rights of Way: Pollinator Havens and Highways

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Turning rights-of-way into pollinator habitat is the next frontier for helping butterflies, bees … and gamebirds

By Johnny Sain 

There are approximately 4,071,000 miles of roads crisscrossing the U.S. from sea to shining sea with accompanying strips of relatively empty roadside real estate. Including the millions of acres set aside for utility and energy production easements, not to mention railroad rights-of-way, it all adds up to an incredible amount of potential pollinator habitat that is often mowed and pummeled into what amounts to a biological desert.

But philosophies and actions regarding this byproduct of our society are changing, especially across the Midwest. The change is led by conservation groups like Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever along with other forward-thinking entities and an awareness of the plight of one charismatic species — the iconic monarch butterfly — with populations in sharp decline over the last decade. 

Utilizing these vast and often-overlooked areas of latent wildlife habitat can be a game changer for pollinators like native bees and monarchs along with other species of wildlife, most namely gamebirds and songbirds. Habitat is at the core.
 

HABITAT ESSENTIALS

“Good pollinator habitat is the same as good brood range habitat for grassland birds,” says Erin Holmes, an Illinois-based PF/QF biologist. “It’s literally the same thing. But when you put it into pollinator terms, you bring in people who maybe don’t have an interest in quail or pheasants. It gets people to recognize that we’re a habitat organization. They want to categorize us based on our name, but we’ve been tackling wildlife habitat issues since 1982.”

Holmes says it’s all about working with entities and companies that have an effect on the landscape. In this case, that means rights-of-way.

“We start out by doing a habitat evaluation of a site,” Holmes says. “We evaluate what’s currently there, the goals of the landowner, and what they’re capable of doing.” Then biologists devise an appropriate plan. “We can do anything from the super ‘Cadillac’ restoration with the most diverse mix out there and a very specific prescribed burn regime to just getting a few wildflowers out there.” 

The goal is always what works best for everyone involved. “We’re always helping people make the best management decisions that they can,” Holmes says. “If the goal is to see monarchs, we’re going to talk about herbaceous vegetation with a milkweed component and a management plan.”

Educating entities, companies and landowners on the benefits of native plants to the communities they are a part of has been instrumental. “It’s going to help with community gardens, landscaping, agriculture … and rights of way,” says Mike Retterer, an Ohio-based PF/QF biologist.


ROADSIDE REDEMPTION 

The change in attitudes and practices regarding rights of way (especially roadsides) hasn’t been easy, Retterer says. But the momentum is shifting thanks to the realization that native plants save money in the long run.

Along I-35, The Monarch Highway, in Iowa.

“The reason working on pollinator habitats on rights of way is going to be beneficial is because it’s symbiotic,” Retterer says. “Yes, it’s habitat for pollinators, upland birds and other wildlife. But in the long term, it’s going to be more cost-effective to do practices this way rather than the old way.” 

Cutting back on mechanical maintenance with results that can be seen on a company’s or governmental unit’s bottom line is the strongest argument. Entities can reduce management with mowing and herbicide treatment from multiple times per year to once a year, or sometimes once every other year or even once every three years. “Once established, long-term maintenance is usually less for native plants” Retterer says. “They’re long-lived, drought tolerant, they grow in poor soils.”

Native plants help bees and butterflies … and gamebirds and songbirds as well. 

Retterer says better habitat is often the result of smarter scheduling of maintenance (and sometimes no maintenance) on rights-of-way. “It’s just managing sites in a certain way,” Retterer says. “We have natives on the landscape, but current practices don’t allow them to come to maturity and get to that beneficial stage where wildlife and pollinators can use them. It’s just a change in culture. A lot of these entities have been doing business the same way for a long period of time to reach a specific objective. Often, it’s not what you do but when you do things that most affects habitat.”


HAVENS AND HIGHWAYS


Consider roadsides in your PF / QF chapter’s habitat plans and work. These small strips serve as habitat havens and highways for bees and butterflies … and a whole lot of other wildlife as well, including pheasants and quail.