The official opening is still a week away. But judging from the smiles on the handful of people who are getting a "sneak peak" at Missoula's Butterfly House and Insectarium this week, the gleaming new facility is already a hit.

Erected on the northeast corner of the Missoula County Fairgrounds over the past year, the two-story, state-of-the-art building is the new home of the Insectarium, which was located originally in downtown Missoula in 2015. But the truly magical part is the Butterfly House.

That's where colorful species of butterflies from all over the world are allowed to fly free, with visitors entering a climate-controlled, tropical environment.

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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The Insectarium expands upon the original exhibits, giving kids and adults alike a unique close-up experience with live critters, and some that are a little scary, in a controlled environment.

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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But when the Butterfly House opens on December 6th, it will mark the realization of a two-decade-old dream.

"Thinking about it wants to make me cry practically, " Development Director Glenn Marangelo told me Tuesday evening. "I mean it's been something my wife and I have worked on for 20 years and to be at this stage is just unbelievable. I walk in here with this level of excitement and awe every day that does not even diminish. But I'm a bug geek, but  it's beyond words."

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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"It's been so thrilling," Executive Director Jen Marangelo related as a handful of people came through by invitation for Wednesday's soft opening. "And honestly, it's been so busy that we kind of forget to take that in. And so seeing other people see it for the first time really helps us like realize that this has come true."

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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A unique operation

The butterflies come in the chrysalid stage and are allowed to emerge naturally. Then they're set free in the garden, with misters and fans creating the perfect environment. Visitors enter through an "air lock" double door system, with a mirror to check they don't have any butterflies on board as they return to the insectarium.

"We are a USDA containment facility, so we had to build in a particular way to make sure nothing that we have gets out. And so the Insectarium, the lab, and the Butterfly House are all considered a containment facility."

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo
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The butterfly house is the only one of its kind in the region. The closest is in Seattle. The center operates in conjunction with the new headquarters for Montana State University Cooperative Extension.

There will be a ribbon cutting on Tuesday, with the Insectarium and Butterfly House assuming full operations with tours on Wednesday. For more hours and admission information, check their website.

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