The Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Initiative has been a pioneer in butterfly conservation for years, creating the world’s first rearing and breeding program for the endangered Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling. Since the program began, butterfly reintroductions have taken place at several locations in the region in an attempt to help save these species from extinction. This critical work has been supported by many invaluable partners, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global organization that aims to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends.

Released Dakota skipper butterfly.

Land managers and biologists with TNC have provided expertise and leadership to the Zoo’s butterfly program since the recovery efforts of these imperiled butterflies first began. They have been especially critical to Dakota skipper conservation in the region. A once-common butterfly across much of Minnesota, Dakota skipper have disappeared from most sites and are now listed as threatened and endangered. The Minnesota Zoo and its partners identified a need for a reintroduction program for the species in 2015. Once established, it was necessary to decide where exactly those reintroduction efforts would take place. The Nature Conservancy, which manages and protects large swaths of prairie habitat ideally suited to Dakota skipper throughout Minnesota, was a clear partner for the efforts.

“Our partnership with TNC really started to grow during the reintroduction planning for the Dakota skipper,” explains Cale Nordmeyer, Conservation Specialist with the Zoo. “Reintroduction efforts often fail due to poor communication between land managers,” continues Nordmeyer. “One of the reasons we ultimately selected Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie Preserve (HIMPP- a property managed by TNC) for the reintroduction was because of the level of commitment and ease of communication we had established with our partners there.”

Zoo’s Dr. Erik Runquist at HIMPP conducting butterfly survey.

After years of coordinated efforts and intense planning, more than 150 Dakota skipper butterflies were released at HIMPP in 2017- the first time ever this imperiled species had been bred in captivity and released back into the wild. The conservation efforts at HIMPP have required no lack of expertise, patience, and collaboration, but the team is hopeful that the hard work is paying off. During the summer field season of 2020, researchers were able to confirm for the first time that reintroduced adult butterflies were breeding and repopulating in the wild. This was a significant milestone for this project which hopes that soon the population of Dakota skippers at HIMPP will be strong and stable enough to sustain itself.

The benefits of this partnership are many, not least of all TNC’s global status and the many land areas that they manage.

“TNC has been committed to managing their land for Dakota skippers while also maintaining the habitat needs of the other prairie residents,” explains Nordmeyer. “They are also engaged at the national level for the recovery of Dakota skipper which makes them one of our few partners with a global perspective on the species’ recovery.”

The growing partnership between The Minnesota Zoo and The Nature Conservancy has led to groundbreaking successes in the field, and the Dakota skipper now has a more hopeful future as a result. In the fight to save at-risk species from extinction, it certainly helps to have strong and dedicated collaborators working alongside you.

Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie Preserve reintroduction site.

The Prairie Butterfly Conservation team would like to extend a sincere thank you to their many collaborators at The Nature Conservancy, especially Dr. Marissa Ahlering, Lead Prairie Ecologist with TNC, and Joe Blastick, Prairie Coteau Conservation Manager.

For more on this historic program and reintroduction efforts, check out this video produced by The Nature Conservancy which highlights the conservation program at Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie Preserve. You can also visit the Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation page.

Funding 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).