DOWNTOWN — Monarch butterflies are dying off in Chicago, but the Field Museum knows how Chicagoans can bring them back.
New studies from Field Museum researchers show people living in cities can play a big role in helping out the orange and black butterflies by simply planting milkweed, a flower that Monarchs lay their eggs on, in yards and green spaces.
Monarch butterflies are important pollinators, but they’re dying off in droves and — along with fireflies, bats and other creatures — could disappear from Chicago entirely due to climate change and other factors.
To save Monarchs, there need to be about 1.8 billion more stems of milkweed than is currently available, according to the Field Museum. The new studies showed cities could fulfill 15-30 percent of that milkweed need if people started planting the flower in yards because there are so many homes in urban areas.
“Metropolitan areas actually matter for wildlife conservation, and that’s especially true for pollinators like the Monarch that can survive with very small patches of habitat,” said Abigail Derby Lewis, a senior conservation ecologist at the Field and lead author of one of the studies. “There’s an assumption that cities are not important places for plants and animals, but that’s because no one had looked at these landscapes in a systematic way or at the collective impact from many small-scale plantings across large urban geographies.”
There is a roadblock, though: City dwellers and legislators need to realize milkweed and other native plants “are acceptable and beautiful elements in home landscaping,” according to the Field.
Many cities, including Chicago, fine homeowners who let native plants dominate their yards if the city deems the yard has uncut or uncontrolled “weeds.” Chicago has generated millions in fines from the controversial ordinance.
“I would encourage people to question the grassy lawns that dominate our urban landscape — could we plant something else that would provide habitat for Monarchs and other wildlife?” said Mark Johnson, a Field conservation ecologist and one of the researchers behind a milkweed study.
Andrew Wetzler previously told Block Club Chicago replacing a front or backyard with native plants, including butterfly-friendly milkweed, was the biggest thing Chicagoans could do to help the environment and the creatures that are dying out. Wetzler is the managing director of the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Native plants attract pollinators. They provide food for bees and butterflies,” Wetzler said. “Those insects then can provide food for birds and other species. The more native habitat we can restore, the better.”
But Wetzler also pointed out Chicago and other American cities could help this effort by changing zoning laws and local landuse ordinances so residents were encouraged to grow native grasses and flowering plants instead of grass.
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