An electric cooperative is among the first businesses to win federal recognition of its monarch butterfly conservation practices, a designation that will help ensure its compliance should the iconic pollinator be given endangered species status later this year.

Braham, Minnesota-based East Central Energy is the first electric co-op—and one of a handful of applicants this year—to be permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enter a conservation agreement to protect the monarch butterfly.

The agency is expected to announce its recommendation in December on whether the monarch should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. A final listing decision would come by the end of 2021.

The Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) allows businesses to submit details of their current monarch-friendly practices and, if approved, receive guarantees they won’t face penalties for “incidental take” when conducting essential work in or near the monarch’s habitat. Incidental take is the unintentional harming of a species.

The USFWS permit to join the agreement recognizes ECE’s 15-year-old integrated vegetation management program, a mix of seasonal mowing and herbicide application in rights of way and other utility properties that encourages the growth of flowers and foliage vital to the monarch butterfly’s lifecycle.

Andy Olson, ECE supervisor of forestry services, said the permit should enable the co-op to “insulate ourselves from incidental take” of monarchs if the butterflies are listed as an endangered species. Also, the permit and the agreement will drive the co-op “to continually get better,” he said.

“We’re going to continue to analyze and scrutinize our training and work methods,” said Olson. “It will keep us accountable as to what our mission is.”

NRECA is encouraging co-ops to consider applying for a permit under the agreement to receive credit for their ongoing conservation practices and to provide assurances about future compliance.

“Obtaining a permit under this CCAA gives a co-op certainty regardless of the listing proposal this December,” said Stephanie Crawford, NRECA senior regulatory issues manager.

“[It offers] a clear framework to continue maintaining and modernizing their existing infrastructure without delay, no matter the service’s decision on the monarch or even any potential challenges due to the election or for other reasons.”

Another benefit of applying and obtaining the permit is greater credibility for the conservation practices a co-op follows, Olson said. Board members have supported ECE’s pursuit of IVM, restoring co-op lands to native prairie and intensive training of crews on using herbicide to remove only targeted plants. Yet some consumer-members occasionally question whether the practices might harm species.

With the permit, he said, “we can tell them this is the way to create the best ecosystem for pollinating insects. We are not damaging species’ health, we’re improving it.”

Olson urges other co-ops not to be intimidated by the lengthy permit application. Co-ops may consider applying in a consortium, reaching out to other co-ops that have applied or going to NRECA for advice.

“There’s a lot of upside, not a lot of downside,” he said. “Plenty of small co-ops think, ‘USFWS won’t come out here and slap a fine on me for spraying a milkweed plant.’ That’s logical. But if the monarch is listed as endangered…no one knows what enforcement will look like.”