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Groundbreaking set: Butterfly house, demonstration garden to link food and pollinators

The Rocky Mountain Gardens & Exploration Center is set to break ground this Friday at 1:30 p.m. at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. The project includes an outdoor demonstration garden and a tropical butterfly house.

A warm and tropical house that’s home to free-flying butterflies and flowering plants at the Missoula County Fairgrounds is set to break ground this month, but efforts to close out the capital campaign continue.

Along with the Healthy Acres Healthy Communities Foundation, the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium has raised $3 million, moving the project closer to its $5 million goal.

Jen and Glenn Marangelo, co-founders of the Butterfly House & Insectarium, have spent years moving the project forward with diligent promotion, fundraising and visioning. Friday’s groundbreaking will mark a milestone in their efforts.

“My first career was as a biologist, and I worked mostly with insects,” said Jen. “I did outreach to schools and realized kids love insects. You can teach any scientific concept by using insects or arthropods as a model.”

Jen visited a butterfly house in Seattle years ago and realized the potential for a similar exhibit in Missoula. She returned to school to get a degree in exhibit design and curriculum development with the goal of starting the insectarium once she finished.

“It’s a complete immersion exhibit,” she said. “You walk into a greenhouse with tropical plants. It’s warm and humid and you’re among the butterflies and they’re flying around you. It’s a great experience, it’s beautiful, it can be healing, and it’s a great opportunity to educate people about butterflies and the environment.”

The butterfly house will include 2,500 square feet, large enough to accommodate field trips and family groups. The facility will employ around a dozen people, along with volunteers and interns to help with programming.

Most of the butterfly species will be tropical, along with the plants. The facility will be climate controlled to model the tropics, Jen said.

“The butterflies will be shipped in in their chrysalid form. We have to do it that way per USDA regulations,” said Jen. “There are many breeders who do this. It’s a great relationship between these more tropical areas breeding the butterflies. They’re inspired and need to conserve the habitat.”

Plans for the site, including the education gardens and learning center.

The facility is part of the larger Rocky Mountain Gardens & Exploration Center, which will also include a 2.5 acre educational garden. Plans call for classroom space for master gardeners and a demo kitchen for those wanting to learn how to freeze and dry their own food.

The education garden culminates years of work on the part of Jerry Marks, who has spent 50 years with the weed district and extension office through Montana State University.

“I started accumulating dollars for this 20 years ago,” Marks said. “While I started it, it’s very much a Missoula project. People are very involved and have made very strong commitments.”

Marks visited an education garden in Wyoming in the early 1990s and kept the concept close over the past three decades. Friday’s groundbreaking continues what he described as Missoula’s innovative farming practices and land management.

“This is adding a lot to how Missoula has evolved, to wanting to grow their own stuff and get acquainted with their world,” Marks said. “It’s understanding the land, the plants and vegetables, and the insects. We just want that connection.”

The facility will also include a native wildlife garden, intended to attract native pollinators. The entire project, including the gardens, butterfly house, and weed and extension office, will cost an estimated $16 million.

Missoula County issued 1.5 mills to cover its portion of the project, though the butterfly house requires private funds. The effort received a sizable boost with a $1 million anonymous gift and $350,000 from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

The new Buz Campaign looks to round out the fundraising.

“The fundraising strategy moving forward is definitely a combination of approaching the foundations we’ve been working with, but it’s also going to be heavy on individual private donors,” said Glenn Marangelo. “We initially focused on where we thought we’d get the biggest donations. Now we’re really starting to open things up to donations of all sizes.”

The groundbreaking ceremony is set for 1:30 p.m. on Friday at the Missoula County Fairgrounds off South Avenue.