Saving the Monarch Butterfly: In the Spirit of Public Power

By Christopher P. Schoenherr, Director — Agency and Government Relations, Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency

What do monarch butterflies and public power have in common? Aside from both being on planet Earth, seemingly nothing. However, over the past 12 months, we at Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency have discovered that the interests of public power and the iconic monarch butterfly are very much entwined.

Early in 2015, Neil Palmer of the Sand County Foundation reached out to me to explore engaging public power in an effort to help protect the monarch butterfly, whose population has dropped 90 percent in recent years.

I said I like butterflies as much as the next guy, but asked why this was a public power issue? Neil explained that pollinators like the monarch are a critical component of our food supply, and SMMPA’s member utilities are located in areas where agriculture and food processing are key industries. If those industries are threatened, the economic vitality of our member communities is threatened as well. Minnesota is the northern point of the monarch’s migration path.

Through voluntary action, industry and communities can help to restore pollinator habitats and avoid having the monarch placed on the endangered species list. An endangered species designation will make securing and maintaining utility right-of-way difficult and expensive, translating into higher bills for customers.

Also, this is simply the right thing to do. It is not that expensive or difficult to be part of the solution if we can engage communities to take action — and who better to leverage their positive relationships with their communities than public power?

SMMPA was sold and organized a two-pronged effort to establish monarch habitat and raise awareness in our member communities.

The first phase was to practice what we preached and establish monarch “waystations” on utility, municipal, and community sites. We ended up with 29 sites in 14 member communities ranging from 100 to 1,000 square feet, each with signage describing what we were doing and why, including the member utility logo, the SMMPA logo and, the logo of Syngenta, a funder.

The second phase was to distribute pollinator seed packages to members of the community to provide a simple, no-cost way for citizens to join the effort by establishing monarch habitat on their property.

Both phases attracted positive media coverage, created a team-building opportunity within the member utilities, and further cemented the connection between the utilities and their communities.

Based on the success of the first round, we plan on establishing additional sites this fall and exploring potential opportunities to expand the pollinator habitat establishment to SMMPA transmission rights-of-way.

The overall effort was aided by MonarchWatch, Prairie Restorations, Inc., the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Learn more about the monarch butterfly initiative on the SMMPA website.