Forty years ago, amid a Mexican forest swirling with millions of monarch butterflies, an aging scientist and two young explorers solved a decades-old mystery when they found a thumbnail-sized sticker that two schoolboys in Minnesota had affixed to a monarch’s wing.
Since that January day in 1976 — the first proof that monarchs were making an incredible migration to overwinter in the Sierra Madre mountains — Chaska, Carver County, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and our state as a whole have had an extraordinary and unique connection with the monarch butterfly. It was a science teacher and his students from Chaska, during a visit to the arboretum, who had placed the tag on the butterfly.
However, if current trends continue, our community’s legacy — and a viable population of the monarchs that visit Minnesota — could be wiped out within our lifetimes. In the past few decades, we’ve lost over 80 percent of the eastern North American monarch population. One of the leading causes is the loss of wildflowers that provide healthy sources of nectar and the milkweed plants that are food for monarch caterpillars. It’s the same habitat loss that is behind the drop in Minnesota’s pheasant population and other wildlife species.
However, what we see increasingly blooming on working lands and brownfields throughout Minnesota are solar sites. In 2016 and 2017 alone, more than 400 million native plants began taking root under and around ground-mounted solar arrays from Duluth to Marshall and Bemidji to Winona.
This month — while the monarchs are gathering in their overwintering groves in the mountains of Mexico — Carver County, Ramsey and Blaine are considering proposals to use private funds to create more than 90 acres of high-quality habitat for monarchs and other pollinators over seven sites. The proposals, like others, are financed by the solar panels that sit above the diverse mix of deep-rooted plants. Once complete, these sites will provide habitat equivalent to more than 54,000 homes each planting and maintaining 6- by 12-foot pollinator gardens.
Featured in national media as varied as National Geographic and Martha Stewart, and highlighted by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Conservation Training Center, Minnesota has become a national leader in developing solar arrays that provide significant benefits to the pollinators needed for agriculture — as well as beloved species such as the monarch and meadowland songbirds.
Thanks to these land-stewardship practices, when you catch sight of one of these solar sites, think of the thousands of flowers that will be blooming next spring and summer, about the pheasants and songbirds that will be foraging for insects in those plants, and about the monarchs and the legacy we are leaving our children by helping to ensure that these clean-energy projects get built and that the plants on them provide significant benefits to help monarchs survive.
Wendy Caldwell is the program coordinator of Monarch Joint Venture. Rob Davis is director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy.