Michael McFarlin works with DelDOT to allow milkweed to grow along roads

For Michael McFarlin, monarch butterflies are synonymous with his childhood. He grew up in southern Minnesota, where, much like Delaware, the land is flat and crops like corn and soybeans grow aplenty.

“The difference is the monarchs,” he said. “When I was a young boy, I remember driving down the road and hundreds of monarchs covering the car. I just took it for granted. Now, to see one is a thrill.”

McFarlin is a 74-year-old retired Army colonel. He’s earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota, fought in Vietnam, earned a master’s degree in transportation from Florida Institute of Technology, lived in Germany, attended the U.S. Army War College and worked as a government contractor.

McFarlin has been many places and seen many things. Upon moving to the Oyster Rocks area of Milton in 2013, what he saw was a scarcity of milkweed, necessary for the survival of the monarch butterfly species.

“Most of the milkweed was alongside the road, and there’s a propensity to mow here,” he said. “The caterpillars, the larva, they have to have milkweed. It’s the only plant they can live on. So if you kill the milkweed you kill the monarch.”

Monarch decline

One thing that makes monarchs so special is their lengthy migration, from eastern Canada to central Mexico and back.

“Delaware is in the eastern flyway,” McFarlin said. “We don’t have as many monarchs coming up from the south, but we definitely get them in the fall, going down.”

While the number of overwintering monarchs in Mexico grew this year, the population has been on a steep downward trend for decades. McFarlin and the nonprofit Monarch Watch agree the decline in monarchs correlates with the decline in milkweed.

The rapid development of agricultural and wild lands, and climate change’s severe weather and unpredictable seasons, contribute greatly to both monarch and milkweed loss. But milkweed is disappearing in one particularly important place – the Midwest “corn belt,” right in the middle of the migration path.

Historically, the vast majority (up to 90 percent) of milkweed has grown in farm fields, alongside crops. Now, genetically modified herbicides like Roundup prevent that.

“[Herbicides], they have a place in society, but we overuse them. They need to be used more judiciously,” McFarlin said.

McFarlin’s solution

Around 2017, McFarlin started the “Monarch Highway Habitat Project” with the goal of designating milkweed-abundant Sussex County roadside areas as “no-mow.”

“Golf greens don’t really make sense on highways,” he said. “There are certain areas where you have to mow for safety, sure, but not 40 miles of flat highway. A lot of animals and insects live there.”

According to its annual report, DelDOT mows more than 50,000 roadside acres throughout the state and oversees an unknown amount of additional acreage.

In cooperation with Darin Callaway, roadside environmental supervisor at the Delaware Department of Transportation, McFarlin was able work through the red tape necessary to ensure that areas identified as “highway habitats” are not mown.

With the help of Alice Mohrman, the education coordinator at Abbott’s Mill in Milford, and the mill’s volunteer Certified Wildlife Habitat Stewards, ten highway habitat sites have been established in Sussex so far. The volunteers maintain and monitor the sites, collecting data weekly during the summer monarch season.

That data is submitted to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, developed by the University of Minnesota to research North American larval monarch populations and milkweed habitats.

“We put up ‘no mow’ signs to mark the plots but also to educate people,” McFarlin said. “If we don’t mow, the milkweed doesn’t look bad. It’s not unattractive, it’s actually kind of nice. So people are more accepting.”

McFarlin spent over 100 hours coordinating the program last year, and won a Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award this year. He is working to grow the highway habitat program, happy to visit with garden clubs, homeowners associations, schools, governments or anyone who’s interested to instruct them on how they can implement it.

“Our biggest issue is manpower,” he said. “We’re trying to expand into other counties.”

If you’re interested in volunteering, email mcfarlinm12@gmail.com.