On January 19th at 2:00 pm, DuPage Monarch Project will announce the recipients of the 2020 Jane Foulser Habitat and Pat Miller Community Engagement awards. Two park districts are being recognized for their outstanding achievements in monarch conservation. You’re invited to join us in honoring them for their important contribution to the recovery of monarch butterflies. (link to the remote event is forthcoming)
You might wonder about the two women whose legacy is being honored with the awards. Jane Foulser and Pat Miller are now retired from their volunteer work on behalf of monarchs but they built the foundation for monarch conservation that DuPage Monarch Project is continuing.
Monarch butterflies are a hot topic these days; everyone is talking about them. They pop up in expected places like gatherings of environmentalists, but also casually among gardeners, teachers and school children. When a conversation gets going, it doesn’t take long for someone to mention Pat Miller. The long time monarch advocate made dozens of presentations throughout DuPage, appeared at the 2017 Children’s Monarch Fest sponsored by the Elmhurst Cool Cities Coalition and for years guided the monarch tagging event at Cantigny. An impressive string of credentials follows her name, including Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist, Master Gardener, and Master Naturalist. She is the woman the Chicago Tribune called the “Queen of the Monarchs.”
It wasn’t always this way. A fifteen years ago, monarchs were just pretty butterflies people remembered from their childhood or had once seen in the garden. The monarch movement came to DuPage in 2005 when Jane Foulser, a long time Sierra Club member and environmental activist visited a friend in Lawrence Kansas, one of the epicenters for monarch research and conservation, where she met Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch. She learned of the threats facing the migrating butterflies and their dramatic decline. Taylor had just kicked off the Monarch Waystation program, a habitat replacement solution directed at gardeners. Foulser, an accomplished gardener, quickly saw how easily gardens could be modified into monarch friendly oases if gardeners knew what to do. Her experience as a Sierra Club activist had prepared her for taking this message to the community and she was eager to get started.
When Foulser returned to Elmhurst, she enlisted long time friend Pat Miller to join her in taking the message to the community. They began by modifying and registering their own gardens with Monarch Watch, the first in DuPage to be added to the registry, then the two monarch crusaders took to the speaking circuit with posters and power point in hand. They believed ten local waystations with milkweed and nectar plants, especially the fall blooming species like asters and goldenrods that supply fuel for migration could be registered in the first year. By 2006, nine more waystations had been added to the registry. The goal had been reached and Miller had found a calling.
Twelve years into the Monarch Waystation program, Miller’s garden beautifully exemplified what her talks described as the solution to the declining number of monarchs, which threatens its ability to bounce back from extreme weather events and exposure to insecticides. The front and back yards were a mix of milkweed and the more traditional flowers found in suburban gardens, harmoniously combined into several flowing perennial beds.
Becoming a monarch messenger was a natural for Miller. She grew up as an “outdoor kid” in central Illinois, directly experiencing nature and making discoveries on her own. Her fresh delivery and enthusiasm for talking about monarchs was fueled by a desire to pass along the wonder and joy of her childhood to a generation of kids spending less and less time outdoors. Butterflies are a safe and engaging ambassador for the insects children are encountering less frequently in parks, preserves and their own yards.
“Maybe the single most important thing we can do for conservation in general,” writes Anurag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poisonous Plant and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution, “is to give people an appreciation of nature.” When Miller passed around monarch eggs, caterpillars and the iconic orange and black butterfly to her audience while telling the story of a life cycle that includes an astonishing 3000 mile migration, she gave them a connection to the natural world. Suddenly, backyards were seen as habitat and gardeners came to understand how their gardens fit into the bigger picture, as a trail of resting places dotting a long and arduous journey.
Her message has been heard. What began with two waystations in DuPage County grew to 437 by the end of 2020.
Monarchs still need our help. Monarch Joint Venture has put out a call for “all hands on deck” for creating the amount of habitat necessary for a population of butterflies large enough to weather normal annual gains and losses. Local conservation efforts became even more essential after the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision that monarch butterflies met the criteria for designation as a threatened species but delayed federal protection for several years.
Miller is confident monarch butterflies can be saved, one garden at a time.
“We make choices every day,” said Miller, “what we wear, what to eat for breakfast, whether or not to squish a bug. We have so much power in our everyday choices. Don’t ever forget how much power you have to change things.”