Monarchs, a rarer sight around Chicago, now ‘endangered’
“I would have normally raised 100 by this point, and right now I have about 10,” says Joe LeCroy, who transformed his Lombard yard into a wildlife haven of native plants.
But one of his favorites has been noticeably scarce this summer: monarch butterflies.
“I would have normally raised 100 by this point, and right now I have about 10,” said LeCroy, 50. “It’s so alarming what’s going on. The numbers are very scary.”
Anyone who has grown up in Chicago or lived here for any length of time would recognize the orange-and-black coloring of the monarch. They are the state insect in Illinois and once were so common they’d be impossible to miss during summers for even for the most casual observer.
Not any more — in Chicago or anywhere else in North America, where scientists say the monarch has seen its population plummet more than 80% over the past two decades.
On Thursday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature — a global conservation network — added the monarch to its list of endangered species, saying this beloved migratory North American butterfly might be fluttering toward extinction if more isn’t done to protect it.
The conservation group said habitat loss, pesticides and climate change have contributed to the decline of monarchs, which can travel more than 2,000 miles, encompassing multiple generations, between Mexico and Canada, with Chicago a key flyway along the annual route.
“It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope,” Anna Walker, who led the conservation group’s assessment of monarchs, said in a written statement. “So many people and organizations have come together to try and protect this butterfly and its habitats.”
Being added to the organization’s “Red List” of threatened animals, plants and fungi across the world doesn’t provide any legal protection under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Act.
That federal agency determined in 2020 that listing the monarch butterfly as an endangered or threatened species was “warranted.” But that process has been put on hold and remains in that administrative limbo, according to the agency, due to a lack of resources and “higher-priority listing actions.”
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said the agency still intends to propose listing the monarch as endangered or threatened — but not until 2024 if the monarch is still seen then as a fitting candidate.
Around Chicago, people say they’ve noticed a sharp drop this summer in the number of monarchs they’re seeing.
“This year has not been particularly good for monarchs so far and not particularly good for butterflies in general so far,” said Doug Taron, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s chief curator. “It’s probably because we had prolonged periods of cold weather in the spring.”
Weather can have a big effect on monarchs in a given year. Other factors figure into their long-term trajectory. The availability of milkweed, for example. It’s the only plant female monarchs lay eggs on and the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat.
Erika Hasle, lead conservation ecologist for the Field Museum, said Chicago has the potential to add up to one-third of the habitat needed for the butterflies.
“We have work to do here in Chicago and in the Midwest to protect monarchs,” Hasle said. “Creating habitat is a thing that we can control — building the population up every summer, when they’re here, as best we can so, if something happens, there are still a lot of monarchs.”
LeCroy said he saw the impact that providing habitat for the butterflies can have when he first converted his lawn to native plants.
“If you build it, they will come,” said LeCroy, a businessman and garden enthusiast who gives free educational tours of his yard.
He started raising monarchs when his teenage daughter was young.
LeCroy has a Facebook page, “Saving Monarchs,” that has nearly 30,000 followers.
“People love the butterfly,” he said. “They are absolutely gorgeous. And their chrysalis is a beautiful green with, like, a gold line around it.”
Liz O’Leary, a former butterfly keeper at Brookfield Zoo, said she also turned monarch raising into a hobby for her kids.
“There is something just so freeing about releasing butterflies that you raise,” O’Leary said. “We’re always saying, ‘Bye, butterflies! Good luck on your trip to Mexico!’ As soon as they come out of their chrysalises, they unfold their wings. And voila!”
Hasle said there’s something about monarchs that resonates with people.
“This thing in your yard that weighs less than a dime flies all the way across the border into Mexico and flies back,” she said. “That’s a fascinating story.”
WBEZ’s “Reset” talks with Allen Lawrence, associate curator of entomology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, about the decline of monarchs.