To Save Monarch Butterflies, They Had to Silence the Lawn Mowers

The Long Island Expressway is not generally a place people linger, unless they’re stuck in traffic.

But during the summer, Robyn Elman can often be found walking alone near the highway’s shoulder, inspecting scraggly patches of overgrown milkweed. The plant is the only source of nutrition for monarch caterpillars before they transform into butterflies.

For the past several years, Ms. Elman, 47, has been on a quest to help save monarchs, which are under consideration for the endangered species list. She does this by preventing milkweed, which grows wild in New York City, from being razed.

Ms. Elman collects butterfly eggs from milkweed plants growing wild along New York City’s highways.Credit…Karine Aigner

The small white dot under a milkweed plant is a monarch butterfly egg.Credit…Karine Aigner

“I feel like we’re taking over so much of the wildlife, we’re not giving them a chance to even exist anymore,” Ms. Elman said of monarchs. Habitat loss and climate change have reduced the monarch population by more than 80 percent over the past 20 years, experts say.

Until this year, Ms. Elman’s quest had been a lonely one. But this summer, she met two like-minded people, forming something of an unlikely threesome that managed, in a humble victory, to protect 20-odd monarch habitats in Queens and the Bronx.

Ms. Elman first started thinking about the wild milkweed four years ago, when she began rearing monarchs in her backyard in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens. She was collecting the eggs from plants growing along highways in nearby northern Queens, but often she found the plants reduced to stubs.

It was devastating, she said, finding hundreds of caterpillars and eggs obliterated.

Immediately, Ms. Elman set about talking to other environmentalists and local leaders, imploring anyone remotely interested in biodiversity to point her in the direction of the lawn mowers in charge.

Habitat loss and climate change have reduced the monarch population by more than 80 percent over the past 20 years, experts say.Credit…Karine Aigner

She went through three City Council members, an uninterested city worker and a liaison assigned to her case by the Council. She even sent a presentation to the Sanitation Department and spoke to someone there. But it all led to nothing.

Until she was introduced to Frank Coniglio, the director of arterial highway maintenance for New York City.

Mr. Coniglio, 58, who has worked at the Department of Transportation for 37 years, handles everything from traffic emergencies to fixing potholes. After Sept. 11, he helped direct the cleanup efforts. He’s a soccer dad, a Yankees fan, an antique car buff and not exactly a Greenpeace-type.

Ms. Elman showed Mr. Coniglio a map of all her milkweed spots, and he nodded. He already knew about the stuff.

Six years ago, there was the elderly man in Brooklyn who had asked Mr. Coniglio to stop mowing the milkweed under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge for the sake of the butterflies. And a few years later, a nonprofit near the Westchester border pleaded for his lawn mowers to stand down for the same reason.

Milkweed is the only source of nutrition for monarch caterpillars before they transform into butterflies.Credit…Karine Aigner

Plus, over the past few weeks another woman had been doggedly calling his office about milkweed, too, Mr. Coniglio said. He told Ms. Elman, “‘I have this lady in the Bronx and she’s driving my staff crazy,’” Ms. Elman recalled.

Her name was Patti Cooper. She had found razed milkweed along the Hutchinson River Parkway and she wanted him to do something about it.

Ms. Elman was not so alone after all.

Throughout June, the two women worked to persuade Mr. Coniglio to let the plant grow wild.

“At first, I was a little skeptical,” he said, “because they were overbearing.”

But he was won over with their lobbying, which included sending him YouTube videos about the plant’s importance and the plight of monarch butterflies. “It tells you about how they are pollinators and all the things they do for the environment,” he said.

From left, Patti Cooper, Frank Coniglio and Robyn Elman.Credit…Karine Aigner for The New York Times
A site along Pelham Parkway in the Bronx is one of the places Ms. Cooper and the others are hoping to protect for the butterflies.Credit…Karine Aigner for The New York Times

Ms. Cooper, 59, remembers him asking her on one of his site visits, “‘What happens to the butterflies is going to happen to us, right?’”

Ms. Elman asked Mr. Coniglio if there were other milkweed areas that he knew about. He mentioned several, including spots near Utopia Parkway and Kissena Boulevard, and “had the guys not cut that over the summer as well,” he said.

By summer’s end, about 20 milkweed patches — some near big-box stores, dental practices and body-piercing parlors, and all near highways — were being protected.

However small the victory may be in an era of raging wildfires and warming oceans, these New Yorkers achieved it.

“It made everybody really feel good,” Mr. Coniglio said. “Like we’re doing something positive.”

Climate change, many say, is the existential crisis of our time. And as New Yorkers watch their leaders race to decarbonize buildings and build sea walls, it’s difficult to know what to do, how to help.

Urooj Raja, an assistant professor of environmental advocacy and social change at Loyola University Chicago, interviewed 33 environmentalists for a recently published study on what drives them.

“Some people did talk about feeling overwhelmed, like they were drowning,” she said. “But when they engaged in civic actions, like calling congressional representatives, or teaching others about climate change or conservation, those kinds of things helped them feel like they had some sort of modest control over the situation.”

A monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.Credit…Karine Aigner

Dr. Raja said that Ms. Elman’s D.I.Y. approach to conservation in her corner of Queens could be “helping her think through the magnitude of this issue.”

At the end of the summer, Ms. Elman leads tagging sessions, where monarchs bound for Mexico in their annual migration are given stickers with numbers before being released.

In September, Ms. Cooper showed up at one, not knowing that Ms. Elman was leading it. “We had a good laugh,” she said.

But tagging has serious intentions, Ms. Cooper said. It — and “citizen science” efforts in general, down to logging and sharing caterpillar sightings — can help monitor the monarch population. “It’s a way for us to be part of their story,” she said, “and hopefully their survival story.”

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