Sonoma student honored for monarch habitat restoration

Girl Scout Faline Howard gets proclamation from Mayor Jack Ding.|

In keeping with the Mayors Monarch Pledge, Mayor Jack Ding honored Sonoma Ecology Center Earthling and Girl Scout Faline Howard for her outstanding efforts to help save the endangered monarch butterfly. The Mayors Monarch Pledge was signed 3 years ago to protect and to provide habitat for monarchs.

On Aug. 17, Ding officially recognized Howard for her work growing native milkweed to help restore monarch habitat.

The Mayors Monarch pledge is being taken up by cities in the US, Canada and Mexico at the behest of The National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation. In July the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN added monarch butterflies to their Endangered Species List.

Howard is helping rebuild local monarch butterfly habitat by growing hundreds of milkweed plants that she gives away to community members. She is also educating the community about restoring monarch butterfly habitat. Milkweed are critical to the butterfly’s survival, and efforts have been made across the country to grow more of this necessary plant.

Howard, 18, is also a member of Sonoma Girl Scout Troop 10240. She spent several months doing research and preparation before she began the project in February. She’ll conclude the project in September and hopes to earn a Girl Scout Gold Award for her efforts. It is the most prestigious award a Girl Scout can earn and is presented for projects that provide lasting solutions to issues in their neighborhoods and beyond.

Howard has plenty of passion for her project. “I love all things pollinators,” she said. She and her best friend Samantha Murray became interested in native habitat restoration while working on a Girl Scout project together at Let’s Go Farm in Santa Rosa after it had been impacted by the Tubbs fire. Murray has been helping Howard with her milkweed project.

After hearing Master Gardener and Sonoma County Butterfly Alliance founder Suzanne Clarke talk about monarchs, Howard was hooked and decided that she would grow milkweed plants for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. Howard said that Clarke was an inspiring wealth of information.

At first it was hard to find seeds, but Clarke and other locals who had gathered milkweed seeds helped out. Howard has painstakingly grown 1,200 native Narrowleaf milkweed plants from seeds at her home and another 500 at the ecology center’s Native Plant Nursery for a whopping total of 1,700 plants.

“It kind of got out of hand,” she said with a laugh.

She’s been passing them out to the community and still has 900 plants available. She brought some with her to the event with the mayor.

“They’re old enough and big enough now to go into the ground,” she said. “Narrowleaf milkweed is very fabulous at being drought resistant after they are old enough. So, after they get to like 2 or 3 years old and start producing flowers they get more resilient. When they’re young they need more access to water.”

The remaining milkweed plants will be handed out at Sonoma Garden Park’s Saturday Harvest Market while available. If she still has plants left, they will also be available at the park’s annual Fall Plant Sale. If Howard’s plants are all given away by then, the Garden Park sells both native milkweed and native nectar plants and is happy to answer questions about native habitat restoration.

Howard has been speaking at local schools and organizations as well as Sonoma Garden Park’s Spring Camp, the Children’s Museum in Santa Rosa and a local Girl Scout troop.

“I bring along my posters about monarchs and native plants and pollinators to lead discussions about what they do for the ecosystem,” she said.

“Monarchs are famous for their migration,” Howard added. “They over-winter along the coast of California and in Mexico. Milkweed is the host plant and they’ll only lay their eggs on milkweed. So by providing milkweed and native wildflowers it will help them to succeed and for their numbers to come back.”

The monarch caterpillar eats the milkweed plant’s leaves to sustain itself. Once a butterfly, the monarch also needs nectar from native plants for its nourishment.

“I’d like to see native milkweed and pollinator plants everywhere,” Howard said. She said she loves the idea of working together with other cities for joint conservation efforts and to help monarchs along their migration route.

The demise of native milkweed plants has greatly impacted monarchs and their numbers have dropped so low that their survival is now in jeopardy. In 2020, the number of monarchs detected on the California coast dropped to a startling 2,000 butterflies, although the population ballooned in 2022 to a promising 250,000, fueled by the extra rain. These native plants also provide habitat and food for other native insects which helps to increase a healthy biodiversity of local ecosystems. “It’s important to understand that pesticides and toxins like this are harmful to monarchs and other pollinators,” Howard said.

Howard said she has appreciated the wisdom she has gleaned from people in the community who are also working to help restore native habitat for monarchs and other native insects. She’s also gotten plenty of good advice from Hannah Aclufi, Sonoma Ecology Center’s native plant nursery manager, and Julia Megna, the Earthling Team Leader. Earthling, a program of the ecology center, helps to teach and inspire youth about environmental issues.

Howard also praised the enormous help she’s gotten from her two project advisors and Native Plant Nursery volunteers Debra Rogers and Cindy Lindh.

“Faline [Howard] is bright eyed and full of enthusiasm, ready to take on the world,” Lindh said. “She has a remarkable mindset. She lept into this project with both feet and a ‘can do anything’ attitude.”

Lindh said she’s excited the mayor honored Howard’s hard work and recognized her accomplishments. “It helps that the mayor is bringing attention to the public about the ways they can help,” she said. “We can all work together. Hundreds of cities across three nations are taking the mayors pledge.”

Lindh said she hopes more locals will join in and begin planting native milkweed and other native plants on their properties. Many local farms and vineyards have taken to more sustainable and biodiverse measures, like planting native habitat because of the many benefits that the practice lends to their soil, water, crops and local ecosystems.

“I’m thankful to our mayor for honoring the youth,” Lindh said. “It’s impactful. Faline is encouraging other young people to get involved. Many of us who are involved are getting older and it’s the children who will be taking up the mantle.”

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