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Iowa biofuel companies constructing more monarch habitats

By Doug Schmitz
Iowa Correspondent 

DES MOINES, Iowa – The number of Iowa ethanol and biodiesel companies constructing monarch fueling stations throughout the state is increasing as millions of butterflies continue to migrate to Iowa, which has become one of America’s premier spots for these kinds of habitats.
“Iowa is perfectly situated to lead the way in conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly,” said Bruce Trautman, who recently retired as director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“Since Iowa is located within the monarch’s core breeding range, every patch of milkweed habitat added here counts toward national monarch conservation efforts. The recovery cannot succeed without Iowa.”
Absolute Energy, an ethanol plant near St. Ansgar, Iowa, is the latest company to premiere its station as it comes one step closer to providing a habitat for monarch butterflies, the company said.
Plant employees recently completed a seeding of its Monarch Fueling Station – a mixture which included native grasses and other plants that attract pollinators. The station has a special emphasis on milkweed plants, which is the only plant on which monarchs can lay their eggs.
The company began prepping the 1.3-acre Monarch Fueling Station last summer.
“Providing fuel for travelers is what we are all about at Absolute Energy,” said Tyler Schwarck, Absolute Energy environmental, health and safety technician. “We see our Monarch Fueling Station as another way we can do that for an important pollinator that crosses through Iowa each summer. We look forward to seeing what we planted today grow, and provide much-needed habitat for monarch butterflies.”
Established by the Iowa Renewable Fuels Assoc. (IRFA), in partnership with Iowa State University’s (ISU) Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium in December 2017, the Monarch Fueling Station Project is a program to help Iowa’s ethanol and biodiesel plants establish patches of monarch habitat on plant grounds.
In recent years, monarch butterfly numbers have sharply dropped, due in part to a corresponding loss of summer breeding habitat. 
In 2013, the plight of the monarchs became so dire that scientists said a single harsh winter could collapse the species’ continental migration, according to Steven Bradbury, an ISU professor of natural resource ecology and management. But ideal weather conditions in 2018 fueled a rebound, he said. 
Monarch butterflies migrate to the same forested area in central Mexico every winter. Measuring the area of forest canopy occupied by the butterflies gives scientists a convenient way of estimating the size of the population. The butterflies covered fewer than 2.5 acres in the winter of 2013-2014, the population’s lowest point in the last two decades.
The consortium, a diverse partnership of 45 organizations supported by ISU, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, has spearheaded an effort to plant 480,000 to 830,000 acres of new habitat by 2038.
The consortium is encouraging the planting of new habitat that includes native forbs and milkweeds. Consortium researchers said establishing new habitat is essential to supporting the long-term recovery of the monarch population, which is why monarch fueling stations have steadily increased at ethanol and biodiesel plants throughout Iowa.
Earlier this month, Western Dubuque Biodiesel in Farley started seeding the biodiesel plant’s Monarch Fueling Station.
“Biodiesel production is all about finding ways to repurpose,” said Western Dubuque Biodiesel General Manager Tom Brooks. “Biodiesel plants across the country repurpose excess soybean oil, and other animal and vegetable fats into fuel. It is in that same spirit that we are repurposing some of our land to help fuel monarch butterflies passing through Iowa.”
The company began prepping their 3-acre Monarch Fueling Station last summer with help from IRFA Habitat Establishment Coordinator Kevin Reynolds.
“Seeding their habitat is an exciting next step,” Reynolds said. “It will take time for the plants to develop a root system and reach their full growth potential. But there is no doubt that Western Dubuque Biodiesel is well on their way to contributing to state-wide efforts to boost monarch butterfly habitat.”
Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy (SIRE) in Johnston recently took steps to dramatically expand the scope of the ethanol plant’s monarch habitat project for a total of 20 acres that are all inside SIRE’s loop railroad track, which would otherwise be filled with grass.
“Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy is committed to finding ways to innovate and that commitment doesn’t stop with the plant itself,” said SIRE CEO Mike Jerke. “Creating habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators inside our loop track, with area we previously would have considered unusable, seemed like a great way for us to innovate the use of our land around the plant.”
In 2018, SIRE began its Monarch Fueling Station and seeded an initial seven acres last spring. 
“SIRE’s decision to expand their project is indicative of just how committed they are to protecting Iowa’s environment,” Reynolds said. “I have worked with several biofuel plants across Iowa now, and it is exciting to see the enthusiasm they’ve had for creating and protecting this critical monarch butterfly habitat.”