Rescue our beloved and endangered monarch butterflies

Pesticides, the loss of food sources and the loss of habitat are a triple threat for monarchs, the state insect of Illinois.

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A monarch butterfly at the Sanctuary of El Rosario, Ocampo municipality, Michoacan state, Mexico in 2020.

A monarch butterfly at the Sanctuary of El Rosario, Ocampo municipality, Michoacan state, Mexico in 2020.

Enrique Castro/AFP via Getty Images

Not long ago, the dazzling migrations of exquisite monarch butterflies were a welcome and dependable sign of the changing seasons in Chicago.

These days, though, it’s harder to get a glimpse of the popular insect as their numbers plunge. As a state and as a nation, we can help the butterflies by expanding connected habitat pathways, reducing the use of pesticides where monarchs migrate and planting more milkweed, the only food for monarch caterpillars. Adults feed on the nectar of flowers.

On July 21, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global conservation organization, placed the striking orange-and-black monarch on its “red list” of threatened species and listed it as “endangered,” which is just two steps above extinct.

That should set off alarm bells. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to put the monarch on the federal endangered list, which it should do promptly. The Illinois Legislature, where monarch-friendly legislation has tended to splat like a butterfly hitting a windshield on the highway, should act as well.

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“The loss of food sources, the loss of habitat and pesticides are a triple threat for monarchs,” Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, told us.

Because Illinois is an important state for migrating monarchs, “Illinois should do more than the federal government,” Walling said.

The number of Eastern monarchs, the ones you see in the Chicago area and that account for most of the population in North America, dropped by 84% from 1996 to 2014. Western monarchs have declined by 99.9%.

In the longest known insect migration, Eastern monarchs, the state insect of Illinois, travel huge distances from Mexico to as far north as Canada. Western monarchs travel between western California and other states west of the Rocky Mountains.

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Illinois farm owners — which often now are foreign companies that have bought up agricultural acreage — have taken to spraying glyphosate, which kills milkweed, widely on their fields. They also often use seeds that are bred to contain neonicotinoids, also called neonics, which make entire plants toxic to insects.

It’s not just monarch butterflies that are struggling. A healthier environment for monarchs also would help other insect species, including pollinators, and birds. A healthier population of pollinators would help Illinois’ economy.

To help, many Illinois residents are now planting milkweed. And, since 2020, the Illinois Department of Transportation has tried to protect as much milkweed as it can as it mows along highways.

But the numbers show those efforts aren’t enough. The state and federal governments need to crawl out of their chrysalises and do more to help.

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