River for Monarchs

As it journeys from the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado through New Mexico, ultimately forming the Mexico-Texas border, the Rio Grande River sustains a rich bosque ecosystem that supports over 3,000 documented species of pollinators. Its north-south alignment combined with roosting habitat provided by native cottonwood trees assists monarch butterflies during their migration. However, the bosque has been extensively altered by land use change, use of herbicides and pesticides, and flood management. This has resulted in decreased populations of native plant species including milkweed, the obligate larval host plant for monarch butterflies. The loss of migratory and breeding habitat across the monarch’s range drives their population decline.

Broad-scale improvement efforts in Rio Grande riparian zones focus on controlling invasive woody species, restoring historic floodplain habitats, and planting cottonwoods, all of which set the stage for planting of herbaceous species to improve pollinator habitat. With the River for Monarchs project, the Institute for Applied Ecology aims to restore 16 stepping-stone habitat sites for monarch butterflies along a 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grande corridor in New Mexico by planting native milkweed and nectar plant species. To achieve this, we have partnered with 9 land management agencies who are implementing broad-scale riparian improvement techniques at sites along the Rio Grande corridor and its major tributaries. We are also drawing from the expertise of local entomologists, restoration practitioners, and nurseries, and aligning our horticultural education programs with the project. Through these united efforts, we increase our impact and share a commitment to conservation and restoration of vital pollinator habitats in the Southwest.

For this project, we will build on the work of the Southwest Seed Partnership and use wild-collected, native plant materials whenever possible. To this end, in 2023, our seed crew made 41 wild seed collections for pollinator resource plants. We also initiated vegetation and butterfly monitoring with the help of IAE volunteers, and started nursery production of 15,000 plants in conjunction with our nursery partners at Sandia High School, the Penitentiary of New Mexico, and the Pueblo of Santa Ana Native Plant Nursery (you can check out a NMPBS video of our planting workshops at Sandia High School here!). In spring 2024, we installed 50 native bee houses to monitor populations of native, solitary bee species at our sites before and after planting. Our sites will be planted in 2024 and 2025.


We would like to acknowledge generous funding contributions in support of this project from the Carroll Petrie Foundation, Bureau of Land Management (New Mexico State Office and Taos Field Offices), and the U.S. Forest Service, Region 3. Through collaboration, we increase our impact and share a commitment to restoration of pollinator habitats in the Southwest; we are incredibly grateful to each partner for participating in this project with us.