How Illinois plans to help save the Monarch butterfly

As the monarch butterfly population continues to dwindle, conservation efforts and campaigns to increase awareness have increased, particularly in Illinois, which lies on one of the insect's migration paths.

Andrew Jowett/AP
Amonarch butterfly sits on a flower on the shores of Lake Huron in Fort Gratiot, Mich., in August 2016.

It’s been a tough year for America’s favorite butterfly.

Each year, Monarch butterflies migrate as far as 3,400 miles from northern United States and Canada to Mexico. Most monarchs have a lifespan of only about a month, so several generations of butterflies are born and die over the course of the migration.

However, due to 20 years of habitat loss along the paths of their migration and intense storms in Mexico this past winter, the number of butterflies in much of the United States much lower than usual.

But in Illinois, where the monarch butterfly is the state insect, the Illinois Monarch Butterfly Summit has convened in order to develop a solution.

“Monarchs have become not only a national and a state issue, but it’s an international issue,” Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Wayne Rosenthal told the summit attendees.

Karen Oberhauser, coordinator of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project and a University of Minnesota professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, who has been studying monarch’s for years, concluded that the monarch population is less than half of what it was last year. Her estimate is shared by the volunteers from the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network who track butterflies throughout the state.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which is running the summit, gathered experts from across a variety of disciplines at the State Fairgrounds in Springfield to develop a comprehensive state-wide plan that can be integrated into conservation efforts already in place.

“We’re also looking to convert some of the city right of way areas to monarch habitat,” Dave Lamb, assistant superintendent of parks in Bloomington, Ill., told the Herald & Review.

Bloomington alone has approximately 200 acres of land that it has converted from parkland to native prairie. The state hope to continue and expand current efforts to plant additional milkweed and return manicured green space back to natural habitat. Summit participant Matthew Lechner, who is a program director at Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, told the Herald & Review that there are 3,500 acres that could be converted into habitat land for the monarch butterflies in Shawnee.

The monarch butterflies pollinates flowering plants such as milkweed. They are also a food source for  some species of spiders, insects, and birds, which eat the Monarch eggs and larvae. But otherwise their role in their ecosystem is considered minimal.

"From an ecosystem standpoint, they aren't holding things together," Oberhauser told the Chicago Tribune. "Monarchs are kind of like the 'Mona Lisa.' They're valuable just because they are."

Still, saving the Monarch butterfly has spawned a considerable conservation movement. Although they are listed as “nearly threatened” several advocacy groups are pushing for the insect to be put on the endangered species list – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make decision by summer of 2019.

In 2015, President Barack Obama launched a plan to help the monarchs along their migration path by creating a 1,500-mile butterfly corridor along US Interstate 35 between Texas and Minnesota, where highway mowing and pesticide use would be controlled and flowers and milkweed would be planted. Additionally, people living elsewhere along the Monarch butterflies’ migration route have been encouraged to continue planting flowers in their gardens through the fall.

"Pollinators do a lot of work for farmers. Whether it is a bumblebee, butterfly, sweat bee or beetle, they are helping produce food. If we are losing pollinators we are losing parts of our food supply," Marci Lininger, transportation liaison for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and coordinator of the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative (OPHI), told Ohio's Country Journal. "We need to change something in our landscapes. We need to create and protect enough habitat to prevent [endangered species] listing. If everyone does all they can, where we can, we can help divert a potential listing of the monarch."

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