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Threats and opportunities on a key monarch anniversary

Monarch populations have plummeted over the last 20 years, but an unlikely new group of monarch allies emerged in 2015: companies from throughout Minnesota’s solar industry.

Forty years ago, amid a forest swirling with millions of monarchs, an aging scientist found a thumbnail-sized sticker placed by two Minnesota schoolboys and solved a decades-old mystery. 

Rob Davis

Dr. Fred Urquhart, a Canadian zoologist, had searched for the wintering grounds of the monarch since 1937. At the time, no one knew where the monarchs came from each spring. In pursuit of an answer, Urquhart and his wife, Norah, created thousands of monarch tags — tiny stickers that adhered to wings — and distributed them to butterfly enthusiasts throughout North America.

After initial reports revealed that monarchs migrated through Texas, Urquhart hired two research associates near Mexico City. They located massive flocks of monarchs in the nearby Sierra Madre Mountains, but had no proof that these monarchs had arrived from North America. 

‘Mountain of the Monarchs’

Karen Oberhauser

In January of 1976, Urquhart and Norah visited the “Mountain of the Monarchs” site along with their research associates, a guide, and a photographer. On and off roads and trails, they ascended to more than 10,000 feet, arriving at a grove of monarchs. 

Incredibly, while visiting the site, Urquhart found a monarch bearing a small sticker on its wing — a monarch tag. The tag had been attached months earlier in Chaska, Minnesota, by two schoolboys and their science teacher, Jim Gilbert. 

It is inspiring to reflect on this discovery and how much more we have learned about the monarch since then, and consider clear and conservative steps to preserve this charismatic creature for generations to come.

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Monarch conservation efforts nationwide are growing in sophistication and scale. A partnership of federal and state agencies, nongovernmental organizations and academic programs — Monarch Joint Venture — works together to support and coordinate efforts to protect the monarch migration across the lower 48 United States. With the endorsement of mayors from Austin, Texas, and St. Louis, Missouri, the National Wildlife Federation created a thorough monarch conservation solutions guide for city leaders. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, have helped secure millions of dollars of federal funding for monarch conservation work.

Wildlife-friendly solar sites

An unlikely new group of monarch allies emerged in 2015: companies from throughout Minnesota’s rapidly growing solar industry. It turns out, fields of ground-mounted solar panels can provide excellent habitat for monarchs and bees as well as song and game birds. Using wildlife-friendly plants on solar sites is already a standard practice in Germany and England. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources supports the practice as well and has provided instructions for region-specific seed mixes on the large projects where it has jurisdiction. 

Monarch populations have plummeted over the last 20 years, prompting the White House to issue a report and encourage homeowners to plant bee and monarch gardens in their yards. On a larger scale, land equivalent to more than 50 million backyard gardens will be used for large solar sites across the United States over the next four years. While much of it could be built with ground cover that supports monarchs and bees, there is no state or federal standard. 

A few solar companies in Minnesota have taken then lead and will plant the equivalent of more than 2 million backyard gardens with nutritious monarch and bee food in 2016 — all in and around large solar sites. (A huge benefit to monarchs and less than 0.01 percent of Minnesota’s farmland.)

Urquhart’s discovery 40 years ago has led to protection of the monarch wintering area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can mark the anniversary of the monarch migration discovery by signing the petition asking for all solar developers to use a monarch-friendly seed mix on solar sites—a simple conservation action that will benefit generations to come. 

Rob Davis is director of Media & Innovation Lab at Fresh Energy, an independent energy nonprofit. Follow him @RobFargo and @FreshEnergy. Monarch scientist Karen Oberhauser is a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota.


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