SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ fiscal health and its bond ratings aren’t the only things about the state that have been on the decline in recent years.
So has the population of the state insect: the monarch butterfly.
The distinctive orange and black butterflies, which make a 2,500-mile, multigenerational journey between Canada and Mexico each year, are facing a host of threats, including habitat loss along their migration path due to development and the proliferation of herbicide-resistant crops and in their overwintering sites in Mexico due to illegal logging.
A group of conservation organizations has petitioned the federal government to add the monarch butterfly to the endangered species list, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to make a decision by summer of 2019.
In the meantime, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is working to develop a plan to help boost the population of this important pollinator species.
The department gathered participants from agriculture, transportation, education, conservation, utility companies and other fields Friday at its headquarters on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield. The purpose of the first-ever Illinois Monarch Butterfly Summit was to take stock of the efforts that are already occurring across the state and to begin laying the groundwork for a cohesive statewide strategy.
“Monarchs have become not only a national and a state issue, but it’s an international issue,” DNR director Wayne Rosenthal told the summit attendees.
Illinois has had many conservation success stories, Rosenthal said, and the monarch butterfly “very easily could be the next success story.”
The monarch butterfly became the state insect in 1975 thanks to the efforts of third-graders at Dennis School in Decatur. The school has a monarch sculpture outside the building that was dedicated as a city landmark in 2015 in honor of the 40th anniversary of the law's signing by Gov. Dan Walker.
A survey that the Prairie Rivers Network conducted ahead of the summit showed many efforts already underway, such as a variety of groups working to restore native plants, including milkweed, which is vital to the monarch’s life cycle.
The Rock Island County Soil & Water Conservation District has been involved with the annual Quad Cities Pollinator Conference. Nine Illinois mayors, including Normal’s Chris Koos, have taken the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge from the National Wildlife Federation, committing to taking steps to help with the conservation effort.
Ann Holtrop, acting chief of the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Natural Heritage, said there now needs to be a coordinated plan to maximize habitat for monarchs and minimize threats.
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“We really have a pivotal role here,” said Holtrop, who helped coordinate the summit.
Illinois’ strategy will also have to fit into regional, national and international monarch conservation efforts, she said, including major increases in milkweed plantings along the butterfly’s migration path.
Dave Lamb, Bloomington’s assistant superintendent of parks, was among the summit participants.
The city has converted roughly 200 acres of parkland to native prairie over the past decade or so, Lamb said.
“We’re also looking to convert some of the city right of way areas to monarch habitat,” he said, adding that this would also provide the long-term financial benefit of reducing mowing expenses.
Participants spent much of the day in small-group discussions among people in four sectors: agriculture, education and outreach, natural and conservation lands, and rights of way, which included representatives from organizations such as Ameren Illinois and the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Throughout the discussions, it became clear that coordinating local efforts such as those in Bloomington into a statewide strategy will be among the challenges faced by those implementing the plan. Developing clear goals and identifying methods to meet them will be among the next steps, Holtrop said.
“We have so much energy regarding this species,” she said.
Matthew Lechner, DNR program manager at Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois, was another participant at the summit. Shawnee, which the U.S. Forest Service manages, has about 3,500 acres of open land suitable for monarch habitat, Lechner said.
He said he believes getting interested parties together to come up with a plan to maximize habitats and minimize threats for monarchs in Illinois “is the right conservation thing to do.”
“I’m not smart enough to know whether it’s going to solve the bigger problem or not,” Lechner said.