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HomeNewsMT NewsTropical butterfly house and exploration center set to open in Missoula

Tropical butterfly house and exploration center set to open in Missoula

A few lucky Montanans temporarily escaped Missoula’s frost and chill Wednesday within the steamy warmth of the state’s first tropical butterfly house. 

Chloe Runs Behind visited the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium’s soft opening with her friends and coworkers because they “just love bugs.” 

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m really happy this is here.” 

Next Tuesday, the nonprofit and Missoula County will celebrate the grand opening of the Gerald W. Marks Exploration Center and Rocky Mountain Gardens at the fairgrounds on South Avenue. 

The 28,000-square-foot facility houses the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium, the Missoula County Department of Ecology and Extension, the Healthy Acres Foundation and the Missoula Conservation District. Along with the tropical butterfly house, the center includes 2.5 acres of education gardens, a greenhouse, a demonstration kitchen, a plant lab and classrooms.

Bryce Christiaens, director of the Missoula County Department of Ecology and Extension, demonstrates technology in the kitchen classroom of the new Gerald W. Marks Exploration Center on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. The building houses the department’s offices, new classrooms and the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium. Credit: Katie Fairbanks / MTFP

The $18 million project has been in the works for decades. Building namesake, Gerald “Jerry” Marks — a county extension agent for 53 years — pushed for a community learning center since visiting an education garden in Wyoming in the early 1990s, according to a county press release. 

After years of planning, the organizations announced the project in 2019 and began fundraising. The county hired Jackson Contractor Group to build the two-story facility and broke ground in May 2021. Design and engineering costs totaled about $1.5 million, with building and garden construction making up the remaining $16.5 million, according to the county.

The Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium raised about $5.3 million to pay for its portion of construction, according to its website. Overall, private donations for the project totaled about $6 million, with the county paying the remaining $12 million, said Bryce Christiaens, director of the ecology and extension department.

The project is part of the county’s fairground revitalization, which began with renovating historic buildings on the 46-acre site, Christiaens said. The center and gardens will advance county efforts to make the fairgrounds a year-round resource, he said. 

“I think it will be an asset in midtown, to the community and an economic driver,” Christiaens said. “I think we will be shocked by how many people come through to see tropical butterflies.”

While some residents have gotten an early look at the butterfly house, the new location will open regularly starting Wednesday. The county Department of Ecology and Extension moved in about six weeks ago and is open to the public, Christiaens said. 

The larger space allows the county department to continue land management and youth development programs and provide hands-on examples of how to connect to plants and food, Christiaens said. 

“We are here and ready to help answer questions,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a one-bedroom apartment or a 1,000-acre ranch, we have programs and resources for you and want to hear your ideas.” 

Museum Interpreter Madeline Kleeman shows a Caucasus beetle to visitors at the new Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. Credit: Katie Fairbanks / MTFP

Work on the 2.5-acre Rocky Mountain Gardens is still underway, supported by volunteer efforts and donations of materials and labor from local companies, Christiaens said. Expected to open in July, the space is made up of about two dozen different educational gardens, including fruit trees, vegetables, native prairie and a flowering pollinator lawn, he said. 

Although the gardens are bare, the Exploration Center is buzzing with activity. The Butterfly House and Insectarium dominates the first floor, which also includes a large conference room near the greenhouse and gardens; a “wet lab” for master gardener and 4-H classes; a plant clinic and offices. Upstairs holds the main offices for the Ecology and Extension department, as well as a large classroom kitchen. 

The nutrition education classes focus on making people more confident to use their kitchen, Christiaens said. Fruit and vegetables grown in the garden will tie into the programs, which are available for youth and adults, he said. 

Department staff advocated for the new building to include classroom and community spaces not available in the previous office, which was leased, Christiaens said. It was “inspiring” to see the project embraced by the community, he said. 

“We have the opportunity to extend exposure to show how special and valuable natural resources are,” Christiaens said. 

For the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium, the new location with its tropical butterfly house reaches the original goal of its founders. 

Jen and Glenn Marangelo founded the nonprofit in 2009 and opened an insectarium downtown in 2015. After their lease expired, forcing the location to close in 2019, the Marangelos worked with the county on the new project. 

“We’re so grateful to be partnering with the county and to be in this beautiful building,” Jen Marangelo told Montana Free Press. 

The facility incorporates pieces from the old downtown insectarium improved from visitor feedback, Marangelo said. Many exhibits feature live arthropods, including insects, arachnids, crustaceans, millipedes and centipedes. 

Bug Owens, left, and Alleah Jordan examine butterfly chrysalises in the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. Credit: Katie Fairbanks / MTFP

“We really want people to feel in awe of these animals,” Marangelo said. “The tropical species are our hook, but if a guest left with more appreciation or interest in looking at the bugs in their backyard, it’s a jumping-off point for learning more.” 

After walking through the insectarium, visitors can enter the climate-controlled butterfly house. The warm, steamy room houses a variety of plants and more than 100 free-roaming butterflies. Lucky guests can see a butterfly emerge from one of the dozens of chrysalises displayed. 

Starting Wednesday, the Butterfly House and Insectarium will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for children, seniors and veterans. Those receiving food assistance can get in for $3 with their EBT card and photo ID.   

Community support made the new site a reality, and it’s “amazing” to open years after first envisioning a butterfly house in Missoula, Marangelo said. 

“To come here with people seeing it for the first time, to see their reactions, … it’s pretty exciting,” she said.

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The post Tropical butterfly house and exploration center set to open in Missoula appeared first on Montana Free Press.

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