WILLMAR — It reigns as one of the most popular butterfly species and in 2000 was named the state butterfly of Minnesota, but the monarch butterfly is also threatened by habitat loss.

"There has been a reduction of 80 percent over the last 20 years of the butterfly," said Mel Odens, Kandiyohi County Public Works Director, at Tuesday's road and bridge meeting with the County Board of Commissioners.

The threat has become so great that, over the past six years, the butterfly has been undergoing the long process to possibly be listed as either endangered or threatened under the national Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December and it could have major impacts on how many industries, including county road construction, move forward with projects.

Odens said if the butterfly is listed, the county might have to complete a habitat study or apply for a permit every time it wants to do a road construction project or other work that could have an impact on the butterfly's preferred habitat — milkweed. The county already has to follow several conservation mandates and programs, such as wetland conservation, and this could be added to that list.

If the butterfly is listed, the county would be obligated to follow any restrictions on all land covered by the ruling.

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"All of these things delay construction," Odens said. "Maybe in a good way, because it forces you to mitigate, so you don't ruin their habitat."

In response to this possibility, a program has been created that would significantly decrease the impact such a listing would have on public works and utilities across the nation, including Kandiyohi County.

In an effort to protect the monarch and, it is hoped, help it rebound, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with the University of Illinois Chicago, has created the Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterfly on Energy and Transportation Lands. A voluntary program, it hopes to set aside 465,000 acres of rights of way as protected monarch butterfly habitat across the country.

"That is what they think they need to sustain the monarch," Odens said.

If Kandiyohi County decides to join the agreement, it would enroll 5,700 acres of county-owned right of way, most of it located along county roads. Then the county would "adopt" 5 percent of those acres as protected monarch habitat. The goal is to promote milkweed growth, which the monarch uses exclusively to lay eggs and produce caterpillars, which only feed on milkweed.

Within that 5 percent, the county would face restrictions on what it could do, such as prohibiting cutting or mowing from May 15 to Sept. 20 and prohibiting broadcast spreading of herbicide and insecticides as well as restricting the use of all-terrain vehicles or utility vehicles within those protected areas, again between May 15 and Sept. 20, the breeding season for the butterflies.

"They don't want you to mess with their habitat between that," Odens said.

The county would be able to choose which acres it wants to adopt, so it could steer clear of land that could be negatively impacted by the restrictions.

"We would need to pick land that is not typically hayed," Odens said as an example.

If the county joins the conservation agreement, prior to the possible listing of the butterfly, it would be protected from any additional restrictions connected to the listing. The county could continue to maintain, improve and use the rights of way not protected as it always has.

"That clears you to work on the 95 percent of that," Odens said.

While Odens, and the commissioners, weren't thrilled about another government rule, they also agree to join the agreement is probably the best course of action, as it minimizes the impact the county could face moving forward.

"To me, this sounds like an absolute no-brainer on how we should proceed," said Commissioner Roger Imdieke.

The County Board gave Odens its OK to continue looking into the program and to reach out to private landowners, some of whom might be interested in having their land adopted as habitat, like those already enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

"I think without a doubt you are going to have volunteers," said Commissioner Harlan Madsen.

Odens said he will continue to learn more about the program and will bring it back to the board for final approval as soon as he can since there isn't a whole lot of time until the projected decision date for the butterfly's listing.

"We should probably make a decision in the next six weeks," Odens said.

For more related stories, see Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.