Declining Monarch Butterfly Finds Hope for Recovery in St. Louis

St. Louis City Hall
A monarch caterpillar in front of St. Louis City Hall. Photo by Kathy Tenorio
About this time last year, the National Weather Service spotted a cloud stretching from the St. Louis area east into Illinois. Meteorologists watching the radar noted that its shape was irregular and it was changing shapes. Turns out, it was a 250 mile wide mass of monarch butterflies headed south for the winter!

Despite this hopeful event over St. Louis last year, monarch butterfly populations are declining. Twenty years ago more than one billion monarch butterflies made the epic, 3,000 mile voyage from America’s backyards and grasslands to their wintering grounds in Mexico. Last year, the wintering population numbered only about 56 million.

While the monarch butterfly continues to wane, the efforts of the City of St. Louis are bringing people together to raise awareness about the monarch’s decline and to create more monarch habitat in the city.

Milkweeds for Monarchs

A little over a year ago, on Earth Day 2014, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay launched Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project. The initial challenge was to create 250 monarch gardens in the city to mark the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding. Mayor Slay led the effort by directing the city to plant 50 gardens, including several at fire stations, city parks and City Hall. The mayor, himself, created two monarch gardens at his personal residence, and regularly shares images of his monarch caterpillars and butterflies, as well as the other pollinators and species associated with monarch gardens.

Monarch caterpillar from St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s home. Photo by Mayor Slay
To track the number of gardens created, the City of St. Louis devised a map and a registration system. Once a garden is registered, a small monarch icon appears on the map and the registrant is entitled to a free Milkweeds for Monarchs garden sign. All of the gardens must include both nectar sources and different types of native milkweed, the ONLY plant that female monarchs will lay eggs on, because they are the ONLY plant that monarch caterpillars eat.

Dozens of partners are working closely with the City of St. Louis, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the St. Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden. The project was covered as a best practice in the U.S. Conference of Mayors magazine and recently received a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region to expand the program and evaluate the existing monarch gardens.

Neighborhood and School Monarch Gardens

Monarch butterfly from St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s home. Photo by Mayor Slay
In addition to new gardens at homes, the 2015 Milkweeds for Monarchs expansion has resulted in 30 monarch schoolyard gardens with associated monarch curriculum, training and support for teachers in city schools. Another aspect is to reach further into the community by working with city’s Neighborhood Improvement Specialists and community groups to create another 28 monarch gardens in each of the city wards. Because of its emphasis on fostering connections between people and urban nature, the St. Louis Milkweeds for Monarchs project will evaluate not just pollinators and vegetation, but also eco-literacy and social acceptance of monarch gardens and urban prairie patches.

Through the Mayor’s Office and the City’s Sustainability Director, Catherine Werner, St. Louis leads by example and also provides residents with critical local resources to make their monarch garden a success. Among other things, the city provides a recommended plant list, a guide on where to find the right plants and tips for caring for the plants to ensure their success.


Garden-For-Wildlife-150x26Visit NWF’s Garden for Wildlife site to find more garden resources and information about monarch butterflies and milkweed.