Two bills to encourage volunteers to plant milkweed on state lands to help the monarch butterfly, whose population has fallen 90 percent across the U.S. in the past 20 years, await signing by Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie has not indicated whether he supports them.

The bills would allow people to plant milkweed — the food plants of the monarch caterpillar — in stormwater drainage basins and on other public lands and parks. They would also allow them to adopt tracts of milkweed and nectar plants like goldenrod and other flowers they would then maintain.

While this year’s monarch migration was stronger through Cape May Point than it has been in four years, it was still below 2012’s numbers, according to the Monarch Monitoring Project at New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

The average hourly count of migrating monarch butterflies through Cape May Point increased to about 95 this year from about 15 last year, according to the project. In 2012, it was 183 per hour.

It’s too early to report on numbers of overwintering monarchs in Mexico, where the monarchs that migrate through New Jersey meet up with those that migrate through the Midwest, said Project Director Mark Garland.

We won’t know the acreage they cover until sometime in February, Garland said.

“They let the monarchs settle and then go in and do a careful survey,” Garland said of researchers in the Transvolcanic Mountain Range, about 62 miles north of Mexico City. “It takes quite a while.”

Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, a nonprofit associated with the University of Kansas, predicted on his blog that the overwintering population will increase from 7.25 acres last year to 10 acres or better this winter.

The Midwestern migrants have been hit hardest by population declines, said Kelly Mooij, New Jersey Audubon vice president of government relations.

“It’s mainly due to habitat loss and pesticides,” she said. Farms that used to have a lot of milkweed scattered among crops now eliminate it all through stronger pesticide use and use of seeds impregnated with pesticides.

Garland is leading a CMBO trip Feb. 23 to March 1 to three monarch butterfly reserves in the Transvolcanic Mountain Range. The trip is full and has a waiting list, he said.

“We are hoping it will be an annual event,” he said.

Milkweeds are the only plants monarchs will lay eggs on, and the only plant their larvae will eat. But as their name implies, they have been considered weeds, and so not wanted by many landowners. Huge swaths of them in open fields have been replaced by housing and other development.

There are several types of milkweed that can be planted, Mooij said.

Common milkweed is a favorite of monarchs, but it’s tall and weedier-looking than other natives such as swamp milkweed and butterfly weed, she said.

“The neat thing about swamp milkweed is it’s a great native wetlands species, with the added benefit that it holds onto water,” said Mooij. “It’s good for water quality and will reduce and alleviate flooding issues as well.”

The milkweed bills — S1986 and S1732 — passed both houses of the Legislature Dec. 7.

Christie leaves office when Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is sworn in at noon Jan. 16. State law says Christie can either sign the bills before then, veto them in full or in part, or do nothing and they will become law.

The governor does not comment on legislation until he takes action, a spokesman said.

“For us this is a really commonsense approach to citizens being able to provide support for an amazing species,” said Mooij. Her organization was behind the legislation and helped garner support for it.

The programs won’t stretch the budget or staffing of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Mooij said.

“It enables citizens to make a difference by adopting waystations and doing planting, providing resources, things like that,” she said.

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Contact: 609-272-7219 mpost@pressofac.com

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Facebook.com/EnvironmentSouthJersey

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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