Butterfly farm owner working with tribes on behalf of monarchs

Jane Breckinridge, who owns Euchee Butterfly Farm near Tulsa, decided to take a stand and make a difference.

Jane Breckinridge said she came to a realization in 2013: Butterflies — specifically monarch butterflies — were rapidly becoming endangered.

Breckinridge, who owns Euchee Butterfly Farm near Tulsa, decided to take a stand and make a difference.

That year, she began to train members of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation on how to raise butterflies on their native lands through her initiative, Natives Raising Natives. In the years since, Breckinridge has worked with representatives of 29 tribes within Oklahoma, including the Eastern Shawnee, Miami and Seneca-Cayuga.

On Wednesday, she spoke about the project and its success to participants at the 21st annual National Environmental Conference at Tar Creek put on by the LEAD Agency at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College.

Breckinridge got her start caring for monarch butterflies on her farm, where she raises butterflies for educational and tourism organizations as well as businesses.

When she noticed a national trend, indicating decreasing numbers of monarchs in the wild successfully migrating from Canada to Mexico — with Oklahoma at the heart of the critical migration zone — she knew something needed to be done.

Working with Chip Taylor from the University of Kansas, Breckinridge said, she was determined to create a monarch migration trail in Oklahoma.

She knew tribes would be critical to the program's success, as they collectively owned land that could be accessed for the trail.

Originally seven tribes signed on to join the program — the Eastern Shawnee tribe and Miami Nation in Northeast Oklahoma, along with the Chickasaw Nation, Seminole Nation, Osage Nation, Muskogee (Creek) Nation and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Breckinridge said each tribe approached the issue differently, but they were united in finding a way to help the monarchs.

The first efforts included reclaiming 350 acres — 50 acres per tribe — for milkweed and native plant species. It also included planting 50,000 milkweed plugs, producing 30,000 native nectar plants and banking 154 native plant species in a newly created seed bank.

Working with the tribe, Breckinridge and others identified 20 to 50 “habitat islands” within the tribes’ jurisdictions. In those properties volunteers worked to eliminate nonhabitat plants and reclaim the land with native plants.

Breckinridge said volunteers of all ages and walks of life came out to help plant 2,500 milkweed plants at each site.

The milkweed plants were needed for the caterpillar stage of the monarchs, while the nectar plants help the adult butterflies gain weight for the migratory flight to Mexico.

Each tribe developed a greenhouse system to raise native plants — the habitats were established more successfully using plant starts rather than seeds.

Breckinridge said the group had its first “proof of concept” sighting in May 2017, when caterpillars were found consuming the milkweed plants.

Since then other natives, including the Seneca-Cayuga, have signed on to help. Breckinridge said members of the Seneca-Cayuga, based in Grove, have served as native seed collectors for the seed banks.

“The benefit of working together, through the Tribal Alliance for Pollinators, is that we can share and maximize resources so things go much farther,” Breckinridge said. “We can share technical knowledge, equipment and seeds, and have enhanced funding opportunities.

“We carry more weight politically as a coalition of many nations than as individual tribes.”

Breckinridge ended her presentation at the environmental conference with a challenge to the audience.

“We need you to join, volunteer to host an event,” she said. “Help with seed collections for hard-to-find prairie remnants. Help spread the word.”

Ultimately, Breckinridge said, helping to develop native habitats does not end with the monarch butterfly. She said other pollinators, including bees and hummingbirds, benefit from the development of native nectar plants such as purple cone flowers, bee balm and echinacea.

“The average person, even one living in an apartment can do something to help just by planting some milkweed and nectar plants," Breckinridge said. “The saying is true, if you build it, they will come. We need to take time and change our actions. Because if we lose these species, it will be because we knew and didn’t do anything.”