Monarchs classified as endangered: 'There is something you can do'

Illinois' state insect since 1975, the renowned North American monarch butterfly, has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Chicago-area groups dedicated to preserving the winged wonder are taking action, and they say everyone can help.

The conservation union added the species to its Red List of Threatened Species Thursday, citing population loss due to widespread habitat loss and extreme weather events fueled by climate change.

“Today's Red List update highlights the fragility of nature's wonders, such as the unique spectacle of monarch butterflies migrating across thousands of kilometers,” IUCN Director General Bruno Oberle said in a statement. “To preserve the rich diversity of nature, we need effective, fairly governed protected and conserved areas, alongside decisive action to tackle climate change and restore ecosystems.”

The group's announcement comes two years after U.S. wildlife officials determined that the species is threatened with extinction, but held off from listing the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act due to other species being higher-priority concerns. While IUCN's statement is primarily a scientific finding, the monarch will not be protected by law until it is officially listed by the federal government.

“It is really exciting that the IUCN has listed the monarch butterfly. That's a great first step in terms of recognizing the decline in their numbers,” said Matt Mulligan, the urban biodiversity program manager at the Nature Conservancy. “Hopefully, this will result in national changes in terms of the Endangered Species Act since this is a candidate species currently.”

The eastern population of monarchs seen in Illinois shrunk by 84% from 1996 to 2014, according to IUCN. The western population is at greatest risk of extinction, however, having declined from as many as 10 million to fewer than 2,000 between the 1980s and 2021.

Mulligan said some of the extreme weather events that affect the migratory insects are drier conditions, more extreme storms and heavier winds — altogether making the butterfly's 2,500-mile annual journey more difficult. He added that pesticide use has also contributed to the decline.

Despite national trends, one volunteer group that monitors the health of butterfly populations in state preserves and natural areas has not observed a statistically significant drop of monarchs locally in Illinois.

Doug Taron, the director of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, said the group's leading theory as to why the organization hasn't seen a notable decline is that there have been fewer changes in agricultural practices that were previously reducing the amount of milkweed for monarch caterpillars to feed on.

Local efforts

Lonnie Morris kick-started the DuPage Monarch Project in 2015 after realizing one simple thing about the orange critter: “Everybody loves them.”

“People have childhood memories, and they've seen them in their garden, and now they're not seeing as many. I realized that this would be a wildlife biodiversity issue that would resonate with a lot of people,” Morris said. “And while we would be doing good for monarchs, we would also be helping all the pollinating species that were having difficulties.”

The project is a collaboration between the Forest Preserve District of DuPage, River Prairie Group, the Conservation Foundation and Wild Ones DuPage. The group has several hands-on initiatives in which they plant native species to help support monarchs, but it prioritizes education and engagement.

In the past seven years, the group has worked with 27 park districts and municipalities to pass resolutions to commit to managing public lands in ways that help monarchs and other pollinators whenever possible.

“What is really at stake here is losing a piece of a system,” Morris said. “Every insect, every plant, even all the things that live in the soil that we don't see, they all play an important role in creating a healthy ecosystem. When things start disappearing, the system starts to break down.”

Andres Ortega, an ecologist with the Forest Preserve District of Du­Page County, said monarchs have been on the district's radar as a species in decline for some time — partly because the butterfly is a great ambassador when it comes to educating people about pollinators and conservation.

“When we want to speak to people about conservation, or about butterflies, really anything to do with that world, they are a great example species,” Ortega said. “People really seem to connect with them.”

There are a number of things people at home can do to help monarchs and other pollinators, Ortega said, chief of them being restoring natural areas and bringing native plants to gardens and lawns.

“A lot of times we hear about these things happening in the world and we might feel like we have little to no control over them, anything from climate change to conflicts in the world,” he said. “But I always try to reassure people that at least when it comes to pollinators, understand that there is something you can do.”

Though a few plants could seem like a small thing, Ortega encouraged people to do what they can as “part of a bigger movement to try and protect these plants and animals.”

For those thinking about starting a pollinator garden or native species lawn, Morris had one main piece of advice: “Good planning makes a good garden.”

While first-time gardeners might be eager to jump right into planting, Morris said starting small is key to choosing the right plants and to avoid getting overwhelmed by constant maintenance.

Morris added that those looking specifically to support monarch butterflies should be sure to include the native milkweed plants that the caterpillars depend on for food.

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

An international group of environmentalists has declared the monarch butterfly endangered in North America. courtesy of Lonnie Morris of the DuPage Monarch Project
Monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles every year. Extreme weather, including drier conditions and more storms, has made the 2,5000-mile trip harder in recent decades. Associated Press File Photo
A released monarch butterfly rests on a "Butterfly Bush" at the a Mount Prospect home. Their numbers have dwindled in recent decades, down from as many as 10 million to fwer than 2,000 between the 1980s and 2021, conservationists say. Daily Herald File Photo

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, <a href="">click here</a> to make a tax-deductible donation.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.