Endangered prairie butterfly released in Minnesota

An endangered butterfly known as the Dakota skipper is once again making its home on the Minnesota prairie.

Minnesota Zoo biologists have been working four years to revive the native butterfly population with a breeding program. The first Dakota skippers were released near Lake Benton in southwestern Minnesota June 29, at the Nature Conservancy’s Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie preserve.

The once widespread species has nearly vanished from Minnesota and is now listed as threatened on the national Endangered Species Act list and as endangered by the state of Minnesota.

Butterflies were collected for the zoo’s breeding program from Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal lands in South Dakota. Females were collected and released there after 48 hours, but the eggs they laid were brought back to the zoo and raised.

In 2014, the Minnesota Zoo became the first institution to successfully breed multiple generations of Dakota skippers entirely in human care. The program has since expanded to include butterflies from Minnesota.

There is still much more to learn and do to re-introduce Dakota skippers to sites where they were once found, according to Dr. Erik Runquist, Minnesota Zoo’s butterfly conservation biologist. “There is still a long road ahead for these butterflies before they’re in the clear,” he said.

The Dakota skipper is native to central North America and needs a prairie habitat to survive. Minnesota’s original tallgrass prairie has dwindled, and only 1 percent of the original landscape remains, much of it in small, isolated remnants.

Dakota skipper caterpillars feed solely on grasses and adults feed on nectar from a variety of prairie flowers, such as the narrow-leaf purple coneflower. Its average lifespan is one year, but the butterfly lives about two weeks as an adult.

The species was once common at the Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie but has not been seen there in eight years.

“What’s happened to these little butterflies tells us that something is wrong with the overall health of our prairies,” said Marissa Ahlering, the conservancy’s prairie ecologist in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. “Healthy grasslands cleanse our water, help prevent soil erosion and provide habitat for birds, butterflies and thousands of other plants and animals.

“We’re hoping we can better protect, manage and restore prairies by reintroducing the Dakota skipper to Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie and other sites where they were once found and studying why they succeed or fail.”


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