Rare, transplanted milkweed grows on DTE plant site

EAST CHINA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Three years after DTE Energy paid over $5,000 to relocate rare milkweed plants at its future Blue Water Energy Center site in East China Township, the plants are thriving.

Daniel Okon, a DTE Energy senior environmental specialist, said 400 Sullivant’s milkweed stems were relocated in 2018 and the population has grown to 502 stems.

“It’s very satisfying,” Okon told the Times Herald of Port Huron. “This is the most successful relocation I’ve done.”

Milkweed is the host plant for the monarch butterfly, a candidate under the Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Milkweed and flowering plants are needed for monarch habitat. Adult monarchs feed on the nectar of many flowers, but they breed only where milkweeds are found, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Sullivant’s milkweed differs from common milkweed, with smooth leaves instead of the common variety’s rough leaves, and a pink vein pressed closely to the stems.

Sullivant’s milkweed is classified as threatened and legally protected in Michigan. It has been observed in eight Michigan counties with the most occurrences found in St. Clair County, according to scientific biodiversity resource the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

And one of those locations happens to be the site of DTE Energy’s $1 billion future Blue Water Energy Center, which plans to power homes starting in 2022.

Okon said when the company was doing its due diligence before starting construction it found “quite a bit” of the threatened species in the footprint of the new facility.

The company paid Marine City Nursery $5,800 to relocate the plants in 2018, DTE spokesman Eric Younan said.

The nursery moved the plants to a safe area where it knew the plants wouldn’t be impacted by construction. The plants were spread out to cover at least an acre.

Okon said there are many variables when it comes to relocation and a 70% to 80% survival rate is good, so to have an over 25% growth is “very good.”

Younan said DTE Energy is one of the largest landowners in Michigan. The company has biologists and environmental engineers on staff and owns 36 sites certified under the Wildlife Habitat Council to provide habitats for animals and pollinators.

Part of the company’s permit obligations to build the East China Township center required annually monitoring the plants’ survival through 2021. Although that time period is over, the company’s not done caring for the milkweed, Okon said.

He said the next step will be to try and curb the growth of about an acre of an invasive, non-native species of phragmites, a type of grass, that is encroaching on the milkweed. Okon’s trying to get funding to hire a contractor to do a herbicide treatment to only target the invasive grass.

“We want to protect this,” he said.