For being the state insect, the monarch butterfly hasn’t caught much of a break in Illinois over the last two decades. Habitat has disappeared, and the monarch population has decreased by 90 percent.
A variety of agencies are gearing up plans to save the orange-and-black butterflies. But they can do only so much. Individual citizens can — and should — enlist in the effort. It’s a way to nurture the natural world at a time when our whole ecosystem is under increasing pressure.
On May 31, the state Legislature passed a bill to create a butterfly-themed license plate sticker that would generate revenue for planting milkweed along highway medians. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, and it is all their caterpillars eat. Milkweed also provides nectar for adult butterflies. The bill awaits the governor’s signature to become law.
Milkweed has steadily disappeared from Illinois as pesticide-resistant corn has allowed farmers to spray pesticides more widely, killing off milkweed. Also, land that once harbored milkweed has been cleared to grow extra crops for biofuels.
That’s a big problem for the butterflies, which migrate south to the mountains of central Mexico for the winter and back north in the spring. Like migrating birds, they must cross what Field Museum Senior Conservation Ecologist Douglas Stotz calls the “corn-soybean desert” south of the Chicago area. The first monarchs of the season started showing up in the Chicago area last month.
Doug Taron, chief curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies are working to increase butterfly habitat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to spend $4 million this year in 10 states, including Illinois, to help the monarchs. This month, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is hosting an online survey to identify conservation efforts that are underway. Already, scientists are seeing a small upward bump in the monarch population, Taron says.
Citizens can help by planting milkweed on their property. Taron recommends a variety called swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which is fine for monarchs and more garden-friendly than other types of milkweed. The milkweed should not be planted where insecticides are spread. Other nectar-rich plants also are helpful for adult butterflies making the grueling trek back and forth to Mexico.
Illinois once was home to majestic migrations of huge numbers of monarch butterflies. Habitat restoration can help restore that spectacular glory.
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