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Monarch butterfly populations are declining. Here's what one Illinois group is doing to help

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Katie Ehnle, Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force member
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The Monarch Butterfly is the Illinois state insect, and it plays a large role in pollination. The species is also known for traveling thousands of miles each winter to avoid freezing temperatures in colder parts of North America. Monarchs typically fly to the southern United States and Mexico.

The migratory Monarch Butterfly population has been catching attention because it just made the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red list of threatened species as endangered on July 21.

The Monarch isn't listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. That would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various federal agencies to enforce stricter protections of the Monarch, as it requires for any other endangered species.

The Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force is a group that’s taking a stand now to prevent further endangerment of the species. Katie Ehnle is one of its members who said the Red List placement of the Monarch is still something to take seriously.

She said part of the reason Monarch populations are dropping is because of habitat loss, often caused by pesticide use that kills the milkweed plant vital to Monarch butterfly survival.

“The more we develop, the more the habitat is taken away. Our herbicide use in horticulture is a lot more than it used to be. Just even climate change, the different over-wintering areas are warmer than what they used to be years ago,” Ehnle said. “Even in Mexico, a number of years ago in 2016, there was a freeze, an ice storm, which killed a lot of Monarchs. So, there’re these different things with the climate that’s happening that is killing a number of Monarchs as they’re overwintering.”

The UN’s Convention on Migratory Species reports that climate change has a severe impact on the Monarch’s migration patterns, hibernation period and on the caterpillar’s life cycle.

Ehnle said it is concerning to see the species threatened, and she said it is important for everyone to do their part by helping restore their habitat, planting the milkweed and increasing public knowledge for these butterflies.

Ehnle said educating today’s youth on Monarchs is one way to increase butterfly protection.

“We [the task force] feel the need to educate the younger generation. The older generation remembers the Monarchs being more prolific, and it seems as their population declines, as long as we can help educate the young ones, then they can understand the significance so that they’re not lost and not forgotten,” Ehnle said.

Ehnle said the task force oftentimes speaks at grade schools and educates students on how they can appreciate this insect.

“We love to bring the life cycle, egg all the way up to the butterfly, so that the children can see what it looks like in person,” Ehnle said. “We do love to educate even the teachers [on] how to get involved even if they have an outside classroom where they can take the children out and see what milkweed looks like. Then, [we] help the children to learn why it’s important to help the monarchs so that they can be around for years to come.”

Ehnle said the task force also aims to educate people of all ages through speaking to community groups and helping promote Peoria-area events, like the previous Peoria Riverfront Museum’s Pollinator Family Day.

Ehnle said for her personally, the Monarch butterfly has a lot of significance.

“I got into raising butterflies after my sister died of cancer. So, it’s a way of connecting with loved ones. Then, once I learned of the significance of helping Monarchs, then I got interested in raising them and planting milkweed,” Ehnle said.

Ehnle said after her sister, Michelle, passed away in July 2008, seeing Monarchs made her feel more connected to her sister.

"I was holding her hand as she took her last breath....always being one of her cheerleaders and at that time, encouraged her as she passed onto the next life," Ehnle said. "I struggled after her death, but I felt she spoke to me about being a beautiful new creature through butterflies. She had a butterfly that followed her casket, and I felt like she made the quote, 'Just when the caterpillar thought life was over, it became a butterfly' stand out as she was no longer in a cancer body but a new beautiful creature."

Ehnle said her dad and her became involved in learning about and educating others on butterflies following Michelle's death. Ehnle said this brought her and her father joy, and her father was the person that helped her plant her garden.

In April 2017, Ehnle's father passed away suddenly.

"By evening, I found myself, again, being next to a loved one watching their soul leave this earth, and me, behind figuring out how to function without them. I put a Monarch in his hand when I said my last goodbye. The Monarch is supposed to represent him to me. So whenever I see a male Monarch, I feel as though it's him saying hello," Ehnle said. "He was a monarch in my life.

Ehnle said on the occasions when she sees Monarchs appear in her day-to-day life, she clings to those moments and knows they are her father.

“...it was just too coincidental, different events where I just thought they were little ‘hellos.’ So, in the stresses of life, I just love going out to my garden and raising the butterflies,” Ehnle said. “I actually raise whatever will come to my garden, so a number of different Swallowtails, not just Monarchs. It’s just a way of connecting and just a very peaceful feeling seeing them flying around. Just a heavenly connection, I guess you could say.”

The Center for Biological Diversity reported that the Monarch population has gone down 85% in the last 20 years, and specifically the western population of Monarchs has gone down by 99%.

 Milkweed is the host plant for Monarch Butterflies. Planting Milkweed and other nectar-based plants in one's yard can give Monarchs a better chance at surviving and recovering their population as climate change and habitat destruction have significantly hurt their population numbers.
Katie Ehnle, Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force member
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Milkweed is the host plant for Monarch Butterflies. Planting Milkweed and other nectar-based plants in one's yard can give Monarchs a better chance at surviving and recovering their population as climate change and habitat destruction have significantly hurt their population numbers.

Ehnle said everyone can help restore the Monarch population through various small steps, like planting the Monarch’s hostplant, milkweed, in their gardens and sunny portions of their yards. Ehnle said any source of plants that are nectar-rich, like lavender or torch lilies, will help the adult Monarchs to have enough food source.

“Really, once the monarch population is gone, we really won’t be able to recover it. They do take quite the flight going all the way south. It’s really kind of engraving the passion into the younger people to keep that passion alive. A lot of people love butterflies, and so if we can just help educate and kind of keep that exciting for the younger ones, then they’ll want to continue it on.” Katie Ehnle, Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force member

“So, really lessening chemical exposure. We all love our beautiful yards, but if we cannot use chemicals so much to kill the weeds, try to use natural remedies, it is good. Really just to have a habitat and maintain it is really important for us, what we can do here locally,” Ehnle said.

Monarch Joint Venture reported that because Monarchs are important pollinators, a drop in the population of Monarchs would mean a drop in other pollinators’ populations. This would in turn disrupt ecosystems and the food web.

“Really, once the monarch population is gone, we really won’t be able to recover it. They do take quite the flight going all the way south. It’s really kind of engraving the passion into the younger people to keep that passion alive. A lot of people love butterflies, and so if we can just help educate and kind of keep that exciting for the younger ones, then they’ll want to continue it on,” Ehnle said.

Ehnle said getting people’s attention now before waiting until it’s too late to save the Monarch Butterfly population is important. She said she will not be surprised in the Monarch is listed as endangered by the Endangered Species Act soon, but she is hopeful educating people now can lead to more conservation.

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 The Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force raises awareness of the life cycle and importance of the Monarch Butterfly throughout Illinois.
Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force /
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The Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force raises awareness of the life cycle and importance of the Monarch Butterfly throughout Illinois.
 The Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force raises awareness of the life cycle and importance of the Monarch Butterfly throughout Illinois.
Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force /
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The Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force raises awareness of the life cycle and importance of the Monarch Butterfly throughout Illinois.
The Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force raises awareness of the life cycle and importance of the Monarch Butterfly throughout Illinois.
Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force /
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The Central Illinois Monarch Butterfly Task Force raises awareness of the life cycle and importance of the Monarch Butterfly throughout Illinois.
 Katie Ehnle (left) photographed with her father. Ehnle said her father is one of the main reasons she became involved in raising Monarch butterflies. Ehnle said when she sees butterflies, it is like receiving a sign from her now late father in heaven.
Katie Ehnle /
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Katie Ehnle (left) photographed with her father. Ehnle said her father is one of the main reasons she became involved in raising Monarch butterflies. Ehnle said when she sees butterflies, it is like receiving a sign from her now late father in heaven.
 Katie Ehnle and her sister Michelle (left). Ehnle said after Michelle passed away in 2008, Monarch butterflies became a sign in Ehnle's life that Michelle was still with her.
Katie Ehnle /
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Katie Ehnle and her sister Michelle (left). Ehnle said after Michelle passed away in 2008, Monarch butterflies became a sign in Ehnle's life that Michelle was still with her.

Jordan Mead