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Leading by doing: Chicagoland eagle scout project restores monarch habitat

July 13, 2017

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed. Photo by Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.
Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed. Photo by Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.

Monarch butterflies now have more places to call home in near Chicago thanks to a dedicated Eagle Scout. Meet Jayson Schorsch. He’s the newest Eagle Scout from Troop 18 of Elgin, Illinois, and he’s helping to build a migration corridor for monarch butterflies.

For his capstone project, Schorsch restored four acres of native habitat at several state protected lands in Illinois, including the Burnidge Forest Preserve, in Elgin and the Freeman Kame Nature Preserve Area in Gilberts. Both are part of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. A portion of Schorsch’s project is also within the Hawthorne Hills Nature Center in Elgin, Illinois. This work involved not only finding the best places to restore, but also determining the best milkweed species and tracking down a good source of those plants.

“I’ve always loved the outdoors, and last year I learned how much the monarch population dropped within the last decade. Not very many projects in our area involve the environment and I realized that something had to be done to help with the effort in restoring monarch habitat,” said Schorsch.

“It’s just sad to see such a beautiful insect disappearing from our planet with no one taking notice. Not to mention that the monarch is our state insect here in Illinois,” continued Schorsch.

Schorsch said that the most rewarding aspect of this project is that he knows that he will make an impact helping the monarchs make a comeback, no matter how small it may be. This past spring, Schorsch returned to his project areas in the preserves and saw new growth returning after the first winter. Schorsch’s plantings are even more robust now that summer temperatures have arrived. Plants are well over two feet tall!

Seeing the big picture

Schorsch’s four-acre restoration project may seem small, but it is part of a much larger effort by the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, The Conservation Foundation, and 11 other regional agencies that all fold into a nationwide conservation movement through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the case of monarch butterflies, and really all pollinators, every small part can add up to a great whole.

As Restoration Ecologist Patrick Chess, with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, explains, quality habitat for monarch butterflies and other native pollinators in today’s modern landscape is incredibly fragmented. This fragmentation poses a challenge to these butterflies as they search for food sources along their migratory routes.

“We are fully committed to increasing habitat quality for all our native species, including pollinators. Every year we harvest seed from about 200 species of native flowering plants and use those seeds to recreate new prairies or enhance restorations. Through funds provided through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, we created 18 acres of new prairie at Freeman Kane Forest Preserve and will be enhancing 50 acres of degraded prairie across multiple preserves,” said Chess.

Getting the right kind of plants is essential

After securing permission to plant, Schorsch had to find the right plants. He reached out to Monarch Watch, the Kansas-based non-profit that further reviewed his proposal and supplied 150 swamp milkweed and almost 200 common milkweed seedlings. You can follow Schorsch’s lead and create your own monarch garden.

Earning the rank of Eagle Scout is more than any one project, of course, recipients must be an active ‘life scout’ for at least six months and successfully acquire five to six character references that assess the scout’s fitness for receiving this honor.

Eagle scouts are rare. Troop 18 is part of the Three Fires Council that connects more than 14,000 youth across five counties in Chicago’s greater metropolitan area. Last year close to 400 scouts in the Three Fires Council achieved the rank of eagle. Out of a population of 9.4 million people in and around Chicago, that says a lot! Eagle Scouts are so rare in fact that nationally, only five percent of all scouts make it all the way from tenderfoot, the first merit badge. What makes Schorsch even more rare is that unlike a lot of his peers, he wanted to focus solely on monarch butterfly conservation.

What’s next for Schorsch?

Schorsch will be a senior in high school this fall and has applied to the Environmental Biology program at Eastern Illinois University for the fall of 2018. His goal in the future is to work in the field of conservation to find solutions to environmental challenges. In the meantime, Schorsch has become a trained butterfly monitor with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network and has been reporting all his sightings.

Milkweed plants arrived in late September 2016 from Monarch Watch. Photo courtesy of Sarah Camson.
Milkweed plants arrived in late September 2016 from Monarch Watch. Photo courtesy of Sarah Camson.

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