The Butterfly Effect: Local golf courses pitch in to save monarch butterflies by planting milkweed

You’ll see more than eagles and birdies at three Great Lakes Bay Region golf courses this summer.

Monarch butterflies – whose worldwide population is just 20% of what it was two decades ago – are getting help from local environmental organizations through a program called Monarchs in the Rough, and Sandy Ridge, Currie and Bucks Run golf courses.

It all starts with milkweed.

That’s because milkweed leaves are the only plant where the butterflies lay their eggs and the only food source for monarch caterpillars. But as milkweed has disappeared in recent years, monarch populations have plummeted.

Monarchs in the Rough, a program of Audubon International, is a national initiative to save the species by encouraging North American golf courses to help reverse habitat loss by planting milkweed and wildflowers. The program has hundreds of participating courses in locations along the monarch’s migration routes.

The program is blooming in Michigan.

"Traditionally, golf courses have not always provided excellent opportunities for conservation work,” said Mike Kelly, director of The Conservation Fund’s Great Lakes office. “But with this Monarchs in the Rough project, we are asking golf courses to use their large acreage for habitat purposes.

“It turns out to be a win-win for golf courses and the butterflies."

Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational funds milkweed project

Monarchs in the Rough encourages golf courses to help save monarchs by using a portion of their vast tracts of land to plant milkweed and wildflowers. The species is at risk of extinction. Since its inaugural golf tournament in 2019, the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational has remained committed to donating to charities across the Great Lakes Bay Region and has awarded more than $1 million to local nonprofits.

The Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network in Bay City, along with the Little Forks Conservancy in Midland and Chippewa Watershed Conservancy in Mount Pleasant, earmarked a portion of 2021 GLBI grant dollars to starting Monarchs in the Rough programs in the region.

“We couldn’t be more thankful to the Dow GLBI for providing this opportunity to us and to other nonprofits in the region,” Kelly said. “Dow is a terrific partner in helping people do some good things throughout the region.”

The Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network is one of The Conservation Fund’s longest running watershed restoration and sustainability programs.

Kelly said he’s also grateful to local golf courses like Sandy Ridge Golf Course that have stepped up to help monarchs and other crucial pollinators.

“Michigan is among the top five states in the nation for golf courses, so their participation in this project is crucial,” Kelly said.

New Sandy Ridge owners happy to help

When the Grocholski family purchased Sandy Ridge, 2750 Lauria Road in Midland, in 2021, they already had plans to add more color to the course with new landscaping. That made the addition of milkweed and wildflowers even easier.

“When Mike Kelly brought this idea to us, we realized adding these plants would do naturally what we already intended to do,” said Josh Grocholski, Sandy Ridge’s operations manager and owner.

Along with milkweed required for egg laying and larval development, adult butterflies need nectar resources from other plants during breeding and migration. Both should be included in any monarch habitat.

Experts recommend planting native, locally sourced species that are well-adapted for your region and more likely to thrive in your area's conditions. Kelly recommends common milkweed for the Great Lakes Bay Region.

WIN gave Sandy Ridge enough seeds native to Michigan to plant a total of 1 acre of milkweed and 2 acres of wildflowers. Because they’re perennials, the plants will return year after year.

“We’re happy to help,” Grocholski said. “This has a two-way benefit of making our course look prettier and helping wildlife at the same time.”

Monarch larvae, or caterpillars, feed exclusively on milkweed leaves. Without milkweed, the larva would not be able to develop into a butterfly. Monarch butterfly FAQ

With its orange wings, the monarch is one of the most recognizable butterflies on the planet. But did you know this beautiful insect which weighs less than a dime travels a migration path of 3,000 miles – a journey that requires several generations to complete?

Every fall, millions of North American monarchs fly south to spend the winter at roosting sites in Central Mexico or along the Pacific Coast. Monarchs are the only butterflies to make such a long, two-way migration. Eastern monarchs – found in Michigan – will fly about 25-30 miles per day and winter in Central Mexico.
Here’s some additional information about monarchs from the Monarch Joint Venture, which brings together partners from across the United States to conserve the monarch migration:

Do monarchs return to the same areas when traveling north?
During the eastern population’s summer breeding season, three generations pass before the migratory generation (the fourth generation) leaves for Mexico. Successful migrating monarchs will live between six to nine months and reproduce and die in the southern U.S. in the spring. Their offspring then carry on their migration north. Therefore, individual monarchs do not make it back to their original starting place.

How do monarchs find milkweed?
Monarchs find milkweed using their sense of sight and smell. They have sensory receptors in their antennae and front legs. Females will 'taste' milkweed with their feet prior to laying eggs on it. Reproductive female monarchs continuously move across the landscape in search of milkweed on which to lay their eggs.

Can milkweed plants growing in backyards make a difference?
Yes! Everyone’s habitat makes a difference, especially when there are many together that start to build a connected network of habitats. Planting milkweed in your garden or yard creates much needed habitat for monarchs in your area and allows them to live and reproduce to create the next generation of monarchs.

Local golf courses interested in Monarchs in the Rough may contact Mike Kelly at

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.