Looking across acres of Michigan countryside on DTE Energy property in St. Clair County, Matt Shackelford, a company biologist, sees what most others can’t – a field of natural treasures.
Sprinkled among the grassy meadows and tracts of bittersweet and Queen Anne’s lace, is a rare plant species called Sullivant’s milkweed. It is a threatened species in the state of Michigan, and the main habitat for Monarch butterflies, which have seen an alarming population decline in recent years due to habitat loss and climate change.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can walk right by it,” Shackelford said.
Fortunately, Shackelford and his colleagues from DTE’s Environmental Management and Resources (EM&R) team do know. And this summer, before any construction equipment could roll on to the property to break ground on a new natural gas-fueled plant, called Blue Water Energy Center, that will supply low-emission electricity to approximately 850,000 Michigan homes, EM&R staff conducted a “wandering survey” – zig zagging across the fields discovering more than 400 Sullivant’s milkweed plants, marking each location with a GPS device.
“This plant is very rare, and we want to save as many as we can,” Shackelford said.
And on a recent overcast day in August, they did just that. DTE biologists working with a local company, Marine City Nursery, relocated the Sullivant’s milkweed plants to an area where they will not be disturbed by the future construction activity. The new location was selected based on the type of soil and habitat that best suits Sullivant’s. Each plant was provided with an overlay of fresh top soil, watered and flagged.
“We will monitor them for three years,” Shackelford said. “We’ve moved them off the project area and we will fence them in just be sure.”
Nearby a monarch caterpillar rests peacefully on the branch of a milkweed plant. And that’s what it’s all about – doing the right thing by assisting in the conservation of plants and animals.
Monarchs, specifically, contribute to the health of the planet by pollinating many types of wildflowers. They are also an important food source for birds, small animals, and other insects. Their migration every fall is remarkable, taking up to two months and flying 50-100 miles a day from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico for the winter.
“Just because it’s not a direct benefit to humans doesn’t mean it’s not a benefit to the environment in your area,” said Shackelford. “As a company, we’re very conscious of that.”