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BUFFALO — The fields west of Putnam County’s Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant will look a bit different soon.

The plant’s 58-acre “outdoor classroom” area has been getting a makeover. Fields of mowed grass will give way to fields of wildflowers.

The first steps of that transformation took place recently when the company played host to a workshop designed to show landowners how to create prime habitat for butterflies, bees and other bugs that pollinate flowers.

Toyota hosted the event, with help from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the state Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The workshop attracted 35 landowners from Putnam County and the surrounding area.

Attendees spent the morning learning about pollinator species in general, and the monarch butterfly in particular.

Monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years, mainly because landowners have mowed, brush-hogged and weed-whacked away untold acres of milkweed, the only plants monarch caterpillars feed on.

The species’ decline has been remarkable. Every year, adult monarchs migrate south into Mexico, where millions of them gather so densely that they form a shimmering, bright-orange coating over the landscape.

DNR biologist Sue Olcott said the mass of monarchs used to cover 45 acres at a density of roughly 4.5 million butterflies per acre.

“Now that area is down to 5 or 6 acres,” she said. “On the surface, that still sounds like a lot of butterflies, but that’s not the case after they migrate north and spread out over a big chunk of North America.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering placing the monarch under Endangered Species Act protection since 2014. In December 2020, service officials determined that listing the species was “warranted, but precluded” by species that rank higher in priority.

“If nothing changes between now and 2024, the monarch will be on the list,” Olcott predicted.

In the workshop’s afternoon session, landowners learned ways to transform their properties into viable habitat for monarchs and other pollinator species. Organizers set up four stations where attendees could watch, up close, as experts demonstrated how to prepare, till and seed their lands for pollinator-attracting plants.

At the first station, pollinator specialists Lacey Smith and Rachel Rosenberg, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, showed how to set up small-scale pollinator gardens.

At another station, the Department of Agriculture’s Grant Bishop and Jeremy Grant showed how to safely use liquid herbicides to clear the land of competing plant species. Nearby, Jose Taracido, of California University of Pennsylvania, used a skid-steer-mounted rototiller to turn the soil and broadcast-spread seeds without using herbicides.

At the fourth station, Rob Hoffman, of the Kentucky-based Roundstone Native Seed Co., extolled the advantages of using a tractor-mounted seed drill to plant large areas.

“Most people don’t realize it, but most wildflower seeds need to be planted very shallow, often no more than an eighth of an inch,” Olcott said. “The seed drill makes a slit in the ground and places the seeds at just the right depth.”

Scott Warner, who heads up the DNR’s Natural Heritage Section, said the workshop had been in the works since November 2018.

“Marc Crouse, who oversees the environmental department here at Toyota, was coming back from a pollinator presentation held at Jackson’s Mill,” Warner said. “Marc said he didn’t hear anybody say they wanted to take the lead on [expanding pollinator habitat].

“He said, ‘Let me talk to my people at Toyota. We have almost 58 acres we’ve designated as an outdoor classroom. I think we could use it to develop pollinator habitat.’”

While the workshop was still being organized, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“When the masks went up, our plans went down,” Warner said. “It took us another year, but we finally got it done.”

The workshop’s take-home message, he added, is to let landowners “know that there are people in your area who can help you set up a pollinator area.”

“If you want to plant a little flowerbed, we have people who can help you out,” Warner said. “If you want to enroll in some type of federal program where you get reimbursed for converting some your acreage into pollinator habitat, we have somebody who can talk with you about that.

“Ninety percent of the property in West Virginia is owned by private landowners. Some of it may be only a couple of acres, and some of it may be hundreds of acres. The acreage doesn’t much matter; with pollinators, we’re all about opportunities. And the opportunities certainly are there.”

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail

.com, 304-348-1231 or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

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