Wild Poweshiek skipperling seen in the field.

If ever there was an unassuming butterfly, it would be the Poweshiek skipperling. A small orange and brown butterfly with silvery stripes, they aren’t especially easy to spot. Unfortunately, this isn’t only because of their fairly neutral appearance. Poweshiek skipperling are one of the most endangered butterfly species in the world. It is estimated that fewer than 500 individuals remain in the wild, and the only known populations occur across a few acres in Michigan and Manitoba.

The Minnesota Zoo has been working on Poweshiek skipperling conservation since 2012, and just a few years later started focusing on the last remaining US wild populations in Michigan. The International Poweshiek Partnership, along with the Conservation Planning Specialist Group, developed a Poweshiek recovery plan in an attempt to save the species from extinction. As the number of Poweshiek remaining in the wild is so low, it was decided the first priority would be to try and stabilize the wild populations in Michigan and Manitoba. Since 2016, the Minnesota Zoo has been head-starting Poweshiek skipperlings behind the scenes; collecting eggs from the wild, rearing the larvae through their sensitive year-long caterpillar phase before releasing them back in to the wild as adults in an effort to save these perilous populations from blinking out entirely.

“Since 2000, we’ve seen a massive decline in the number of Poweshiek skipperling recorded in the wild with a subsequent large crash in 2013,” laments Cale Nordmeyer, conservation specialist with the Minnesota Zoo. “The numbers in Michigan are so low that we feared they wouldn’t recover on their own.”

Staff at the John Ball Zoo in front of new butterfly hoop house.

The population trend of Poweshiek skipperling in the wild is more than concerning. Researchers have worked hard to increase conservation efforts to save this species, and the program is growing. In 2018, the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg Manitoba partnered with the Minnesota Zoo to begin their own Poweshiek skipperling conservation program. This past year, research facilities at the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan were established so that even more Poweshiek skipperlings can be reared and released back into the wild.

“These partnerships are hugely valuable to the conservation of the species as we can now rear and release far more butterflies which will hopefully have a significant impact on the wild Poweshiek populations,” explains Nordmeyer. “Bill Flanagan, John Ball Zoo’s Conservation Manager, has built a new hoop-house and research space that closely mimics our facilities here at the Minnesota Zoo. In addition, much of the Poweshiek care there is being organized by Dave Pavlik, a research assistant with the Nick Haddad Lab at Michigan State University. We’re very excited about these new developments and the growth of the conservation program.”

Nordmeyer (right) with USFWS staff at a Poweshiek skipperling field site.

These partnerships also bring new opportunities for the managed care of the species. Given the Zoo’s past efforts to curb the decline of the wild populations, the International Poweshiek Partnership recommended breeding butterflies in the safety of a zoo setting. These efforts have resulted in hundreds of newly hatched Poweshiek skipperling caterpillars, so tiny upon emerging from their egg casings that they can be difficult to safely handle. Each caterpillar is meticulously tracked as it feeds and grows into adulthood, with the ultimate goal of these butterflies eventually being released into the wild.

“This year, we had 589 Poweshiek skipperling eggs from Zoo-breeding that were split between the Minnesota Zoo and the John Ball Zoo,” states Nordmeyer. “This is the first time we’ve had the capacity to rear Poweshiek skipperlings at this magnitude. We’re hopeful these numbers can make a real difference for the wild populations and prevent them from total collapse.”

The goal of this conservation program is to reintroduce Poweshiek skipperling to sites in Minnesota where they have gone extinct, once the last remaining populations in Manitoba and Michigan have stabilized. Poweshiek were once one of the most abundant butterfly species found in Minnesota prairies. Unfortunately, there are no known populations remaining in the state. “We keep hoping that there may be pockets of wild Poweshiek in Minnesota but so far we haven’t found any,” says Nordmeyer. His ask? “Send us your photos if you’re out and see any skipperlings!”

To read more about this work and for additional ways you can help butterfly conservation, visit the Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program page.

Funding and support for this project was provided by: the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR); the USFWS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; and the Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment.