Monarch butterflies ‘endangered’, a rare sight around Chicago

In Lombard, half a block from Main Street, Joe Lecroy has turned his yard into a wildlife haven with native plants that attract hummingbirds, dragonflies, bees and other pollinators.

But one of his favorites has been remarkably rare this summer: monarch butterflies.

“I would normally have collected 100 at this point and now I have about 10,” said Lecroy, 50. “What is happening is very alarming. The numbers are very scary.”

Anyone who grew up in Chicago or lived here for any length of time will recognize the orange and black of the king. It is the state insect of Illinois, and was once so common that it is impossible to miss during the summer even to the casual observer.

Not anymore — in Chicago or elsewhere in North America, where scientists say the royal family has seen its population decline by more than 80% over the past two decades.

On Thursday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature – a global network for nature conservation – added the monarch to its list of endangered species, saying this North American migratory butterfly could be flailing toward extinction if more is not done to protect it.

The conservation group said habitat loss, pesticides and climate change have contributed to the decline of the monarchs, who can travel more than 2,000 miles, spanning multiple generations, between Mexico and Canada, with Chicago a major route for flying along the annual route.

“It’s hard to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration on the brink of collapse, but there are signs of hope,” Anna Walker, who led the assessment of the Conservation Kings group, said in a written statement. “Lots of people and organizations have come together to try to protect this butterfly and its habitat.”

Adding it to the organization’s “Red List” of threatened animals, plants, and fungi worldwide does not provide any legal protection under the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Act.

That federal agency decided in 2020 that listing the monarch butterfly as an endangered or threatened species was “justified.” But that process has been put on hold and remains in this administrative deadlock, according to the agency, due to a lack of resources and “higher priority listing procedures.”

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said the agency still intended to propose listing the king’s name as endangered or threatened – but not until 2024 if the monarch is still seen as an appropriate candidate.

Across Chicago, people say they have noticed a sharp decline this summer in the number of monarchs they see.

“This year hasn’t been particularly good for kings yet and it hasn’t been particularly good for butterflies in general yet,” said Doug Taron, senior curator at the Peggy Notbert Nature Museum. “It may be due to long periods of cold weather in the spring.”

The weather can have a huge impact on royalty in a given year. Other factors get into its long-term course. Milkweed availability for example. It is the only plant that lays its eggs the kings of the plant and will eat the only caterpillars of the royal plants.

King butterfly caterpillars in Jo Lecroy Park in Lombard.

King butterfly caterpillars in Jo Lecroy Park in Lombard.

Erica Hassell, chief ecologist at the Field Museum, said Chicago has the potential to add up to a third of the habitat needed for butterflies.

“We have work to do here in Chicago and in the Midwest to protect royalty,” Hussell said. “Habitat creation is something we can control – build up the population every summer, when they’re here, as best we can, if something happens, there’s still plenty of royalty.”

LeCroy said he saw the impact providing habitat can have for butterflies when he first converted his garden to native plants.

“If you build it, they will come,” said Lecroy, an entrepreneur and garden enthusiast who offers free educational tours of his yard.

He started raising royalty when his teenage daughter was young.

LeCroy has a Facebook page, “Saving Monarchs,” which has nearly 30,000 followers.

“People love the butterfly,” he said. “They’re so adorable. And their cocoon is pretty green with, like, a golden streak around it.”

Joe LeCroy has set up a butterfly education center in his yard in Lombard.  But it did not have the numbers of monarch butterflies this year that its native plants would normally attract.

Joe LeCroy has set up a butterfly education center in his yard in Lombard. But it did not have the numbers of monarch butterflies this year that its native plants would normally attract.

Liz O’Leary, a former butterfly keeper at Brookfield Zoo, said she’s turned raising the king into a hobby for her children.

“There is something liberating about releasing the butterflies you keep,” O’Leary said. “We always say, Goodbye, butterflies! Good luck on your trip to Mexico!” Once they emerge from their cocoon, they open their wings. And the there he is!”

There is something about royalty that resonates with people, Hussell said.

“That thing in your garden that weighs less than a dime, flies all the way across the border into Mexico and flies back,” she said. “This is a great story.”

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