To save monarch butterflies, they had to silence the lawnmowers | ET REALITY


The Long Island Expressway is generally not a place to linger, unless you are stuck in traffic.

But during the summer, Robyn Elman can often be found walking alone near the shoulder of the road, inspecting neglected patches of overgrown milkweed. The plant is the only source of nutrition for monarch caterpillars before they transform into butterflies.

For the past few years, Elman, 47, has been on a quest to help save monarchs, which are under consideration for the list of endangered species. It does this by preventing milkweed, which grows wild in New York City, from being destroyed.

“I feel like we’re taking over so much of the wildlife, that we’re not giving them a chance to exist anymore,” Elman said of monarchs. According to experts, habitat loss and climate change have reduced the monarch population by more than 80 percent in the last 20 years.

Until this year, Elman’s search had been a lonely one. But this summer he met two like-minded people, forming an unlikely trio of sorts that managed, in a humble victory, to protect some 20 monarch habitats in Queens and the Bronx.

Ms. Elman began thinking about wild milkweed four years ago, when she began raising monarchs in her backyard in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens. She was collecting eggs from plants growing along roadsides in near northern Queens, but often found the plants reduced to pieces.

It was devastating, he said, to find hundreds of caterpillars and eggs destroyed.

Elman immediately began talking to other environmentalists and local leaders, imploring anyone remotely interested in biodiversity to point him in the direction of the lawnmowers in charge.

He went through three City Council members, a selfless city worker, and a liaison assigned to his case by the Council. She even sent a presentation to the Department of Health and spoke to someone there. But all this led to nothing.

Until he was introduced to Frank Coniglio, director of arterial road maintenance for New York City.

Coniglio, 58, who has worked at the Department of Transportation for 37 years, handles everything from traffic emergencies to pothole repairs. After 9/11, he helped lead cleanup efforts. He’s a soccer dad, a Yankees fan, a vintage car aficionado, and not exactly a Greenpeace type.

Mrs. Elman showed Mr. Coniglio a map of all her milkweed spots and he nodded. He already knew about those things.

Six years ago, there was an old man in Brooklyn who had asked Mr. Coniglio to stop cutting down the milkweed under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge for the sake of the butterflies. And a few years later, a nonprofit near the Westchester border asked that its lawnmowers stop working for the same reason.

Additionally, another woman had also been stubbornly calling his office about milkweed in recent weeks, Coniglio said. She told Ms. Elman: “‘I have this lady in the Bronx and she is driving my staff crazy,'” Ms. Elman recalled.

Her name was Patti Cooper. She had found washed-out milkweed along the Hutchinson River Parkway and she wanted him to do something about it.

After all, Elman wasn’t so alone.

Throughout June, the two women worked to persuade Mr. Coniglio to let the plant grow wild.

“I was a little skeptical at first,” he said, “because they were authoritarian.”

But her lobbying won him over, including sending him YouTube videos about the importance of the plant and the plight of monarch butterflies. “He tells you about how they are pollinators and all the things they do for the environment,” he said.

Ms. Cooper, 59, remembers him asking her on one of her visits to the site: “‘Whatever happens to the butterflies is going to happen to us, right?'”

Ms. Elman asked Mr. Coniglio if he knew of any other milkweed areas. He mentioned several, including places near Utopia Parkway and Kissena Boulevard, and “the guys didn’t mow them over the summer either,” she said.

By late summer, about 20 patches of milkweed were being protected, some near big-box stores, dental offices and body piercing salons, and all near highways.

However small the victory may be in an era of devastating wildfires and warming oceans, these New Yorkers achieved it.

“It made everyone feel really good,” Coniglio said. “As if we were doing something positive.”

Many say that climate change is the existential crisis of our time. And as New Yorkers watch their leaders race to decarbonize buildings and build levees, it’s hard to know what to do, how to help.

Urooj Raja, assistant professor of environmental advocacy and social change at Loyola University Chicago, interviewed 33 environmentalists. for a recently published study in what drives them.

“Some people talked about feeling overwhelmed, like they were drowning,” he said. “But when they participated in civic actions, like calling congressional representatives or teaching others about climate change or conservation, those kinds of things helped them feel like they had some kind of modest control over the situation.”

Dr. Raja said Ms. Elman’s focus on conservation on her corner of Queens could “help her think about the magnitude of this problem.”

At the end of the summer, Ms. Elman leads tagging sessions, where monarchs bound for Mexico on their annual migration are given stickers with numbers before being released.

In September, Ms. Cooper showed up at one, not knowing that Ms. Elman was in front. “We laughed a lot,” she said.

But the labeling has serious intentions, Cooper said. This (and “citizen science” efforts in general, down to recording and sharing caterpillar sightings) can help monitor the monarch population. “It’s a way for us to be part of his story,” he said, “and, hopefully, his survival story.”

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