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Monarch fans put out butterfly-friendly buffet along Duluth Lakewalk

A monarch butterfly has been tagged with a tracking device, which allows researchers to monitor monarch migration paths. Tracking the butterflies allows researchers to identify potential sites for monarch gardens, similar to the one being constructed along the Lakewalk. (Photo courtesy of David Lood)

Some familiar friends may soon be spending a little more time in Duluth.

Migrating monarch butterflies have been making fewer pit stops in the Northland lately, as development in the area has claimed some of the spots where they used to sojourn during their thousand-mile journeys. Now, there’s a plan to make them feel a little more at home.

“We really understand the importance of pollinators to the environment,” said David Lood, youth director for the Pheasants Forever chapter in St. Louis and Carlton counties. Pheasants Forever has teamed up with Duluth East High School and Prairie Restorations in Cloquet to restore a monarch habitat along the Lakewalk.

“Monarchs are really an iconic representation of pollinators,” Lood said. “And pollinators are crucial for not only ecosystems, but also our food system.”

Lood and others are trying to engineer a revitalization of Minnesota’s state butterfly though the creation of a monarch way station — a garden that gives monarchs a place to rest and reproduce during their travels. The garden along the Lakewalk will be crowded with milkweed plants, which are a favorite meal of monarch caterpillars and a popular resting spot for eggs. It also will allow researchers to tag some monarchs with a small tracking device underneath their wings, which will provide information about the creatures’ migration routes.

“It provides a place for monarchs to rest, feed and get water along their migratory path,” Lood said of the garden. Monarchs leave for Mexico at the first detection of an autumn chill and don’t return until the weather can support them in the spring.

“It also gives people a chance to watch and enjoy monarchs,” Lood said. “Some people bird watch. Other people watch monarchs.”

The half-acre garden will stretch along the Lakewalk near 40th Avenue East and Duluth East High School. Digging began earlier this month, Lood said, and the garden should be seeded and planted by mid-September. Duluth East students will help prepare, raise and maintain it.

“We want to build that relationship between nature and kids,” Lood said. “It’s hands-on. They get their hands dirty.”

Duluth East activities director Shawn Roed said the garden will be cared for by the school’s Green Club, as well as by classes with curriculums that include nature and the outdoors.

“It’s nice to get them involved with something they can walk out the door every day and nurture,” Roed said. “They can see it grow over time.”

The school has a large surplus of green space, Roed said, and it’s looking for ways to put that space to use.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t go to waste,” Roed said. “Instead of seeing a bunch of weeds there, people will see something that really has a positive impact on the environment.”

Once completed, Lood said, the garden will add another aesthetically pleasing feature to the Lakewalk. But that’s secondary to the effect it will have on monarch butterfly populations in Duluth, he said.

According to the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, there was one monarch for every 10 milkweed plants in Minnesota during the week that began last Sunday. During the same week in 2010, there were two monarchs for every 10 milkweed plants.

“One of the biggest contributors to the monarch and pollinator decline is a loss of habitat,” Lood said. “Monarch health can often reflect the health of pollinators in general.”

Pollinators help produce one out of every three bites of our food, according to the nonprofit Center for Food Safety. Lood said a decline in pollinators could lead to a decline or disappearance of certain foods.

Gardens like the one soon to line the Lakewalk work to counter those negative trends. Lood said the garden should become healthier and more robust with each growing season, making it better suited to meet the needs of both the butterflies that glide in and the caterpillars that hatch there.

“The site will be stronger as time goes on,” Lood said. “It will be workable next spring, but the natural process will eventually take over on its own.”

Lood said the ability of mature gardens to more or less maintain themselves doesn’t mean nature will do all the work at the monarch way station. Helping train the next generation of environmental caretakers is in his job description, after all.

“Efforts today have little importance or purpose tomorrow if we don’t teach youth about habitat and wildlife,” he said. “Teaching them creates a longer-lasting positive impact.”