Biofuel Plants in Iowa Creating Spaces for Monarch Butterflies to ‘Fuel Up’

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NEWTON, Iowa -- Situated on the Northeast side of Newton since 2007, a Renewable Energy Group (REG) plant produces approximately 30 million gallons of biodiesel, a renewable fuel, every year. But starting next spring, they will be providing a different kind of fuel, one for monarch butterflies.

“There’s been a great lack of area for pollinators, [such as] butterflies and bees, to be able to refuel, to have pollen,” Phil Abels, plant manager for REG Newton LLC said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the monarch butterfly could warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act if something isn't done to boost its population. That’s why REG Newton is working with other biofuels plants to give the pollinators a place to “fuel up.”

Abels says what is now just one and a half acres of grass next to their biodiesel plant, will soon be a prime location for monarchs, with milkweed and native plants.

“This is a perfect spot for them to stop on their way from Canada down to Mexico,” Abels said.

Every year the monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico up to the Canadian border, passing right over Iowa when it’s time for them to breed, but habitat loss is making it difficult for monarchs to lay eggs.

Milkweed plants are the only spot the butterflies put their eggs, but unfortunately, the plant is often killed by agriculture, development, and the overuse of pesticides. Many think of milkweed as a harmful or poisonous weed.

That’s why the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association started its project called the “Monarch Fueling Station” in December of 2018. REG Newton is one of the latest ethanol and biodiesel plants to join the cause.

“We take what was a waste or byproduct and value add it into ultimately biodiesel. This [project] is much the same. Not so much wasteland, but grassland that was really not being utilized, so we’re taking that un-utilized spaced and adding value to it,” Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, REG’s Manager of Corporate Affairs said.

That value is at the expense of REG Newton, who is gearing up to burn all the grass in the area to prepare for seeding this fall.

“It’s a little bit of work to begin with and it’s a small amount of maintenance, but the value that will be received goes way beyond any effort,” Abels said.

A Pheasants Forever local chapter will be providing REG Newton with the seedings. They hope by next spring there will be dozens of monarchs flying around their plant.

The Iowa Department of Transportation is also joining in on the cause. Interstate-35, which passes through Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, is also known as the “Monarch Highway.” The DOTs in those states are making an effort to restore and maintain the habitat of monarchs alongside the interstate by planting grasses that provide pollinator habitat and food sources.

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