Can Illinois tollway help save the monarch butterfly?

Updated 1/29/2015 1:35 PM
  • A female monarch butterfly is attracted to a milkweed plant.

    A female monarch butterfly is attracted to a milkweed plant. Daily Herald File Photo

The Illinois tollway is pivoting from dragonflies to butterflies as the next species to tuck under its wing.

Officials Thursday endorsed a proposal to add more milkweed to the seed mix used in certain locations along its 286 miles of road. The plant is a diet staple for monarch butterflies, a species that is threatened by dwindling food supplies.

The tollway also will consider converting about 20 right-of-way properties along the Jane Addams (I-90), Reagan Memorial (I-88) and Tri-State (I-294) tollways from grass to monarch-friendly territory.

The idea came from Aurora Mayor and tollway Director Tom Weisner, who recalled one of his favorite pastimes growing up in Batavia was watching "multitudes" of monarch butterflies pass.

"I've noticed in my adult life I'm seeing fewer and fewer. Their numbers have fallen precipitously," Weisner said.

When the tollway extended I-355 south, the agency was required to invest thousands to help create a new habitat for Hine's emerald dragonfly, an endangered species impacted by construction of a bridge over the Des Plaines River.

Coming to the rescue of monarch butterflies should be at a minimal cost, administrators said.

Pesticides have wiped out milkweed in many areas favored by monarchs, and that has hurt their numbers, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Rebecca Riley said.

The NRDC will partner with the tollway on the project.

Along with sowing more milkweed, the tollway can reduce mowing in certain areas to encourage native species, said environmental policy and program manager Bryan Wagner.

He noted that establishing native species can take a few years.

Monarchs are "an iconic species," Wagner said. "They're representative of a healthy environmental and a healthy economic system." He explained that butterflies are pollinators that help grow crops.

Tollway Chairman Paula Wolff cautioned that the agency needed to heed communities that might prefer grass along toll roads as opposed to native prairie plants.

Executive Director Kristi Lafleur agreed that while many communities would welcome butterfly habitats, others might object to milkweed. "We have to be sensitive to the culture of (specific) communities," she said.

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