The Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program aims to secure a future for our state’s most imperiled prairie butterflies. Did you know that the orange and brown Poweshiek skipperling, formerly one of Minnesota’s most common prairie butterflies, is now nearly extinct? Fewer than 500 may remain in the world! Another butterfly, the Dakota skipper, has also dropped to very low numbers and is gone from most sites. Both are now listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and are among 15 butterflies that are “Endangered,” “Threatened,” or of “Special Concern” by Minnesota.
Prairie once covered about 33% of Minnesota and significantly shaped our history. Minnesota once had 18 million acres of prairie that stretched across the state. Today, only 1% of that original prairie remains. Many animals and plants that need prairie have declined or vanished. Habitat loss is the major cause, but some have declined rapidly for other poorly understood reasons in recent years. Many of Minnesota’s native butterfly species depend on prairies. Butterflies are “canary in the coalmine” indicators of prairie health because of their sensitivity to changes in their habitats.
The Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program works with many agencies and groups to save endangered butterflies like the Poweshiek skipperling and Dakota skipper. The Zoo is creating the world’s first rearing and breeding programs for these butterflies to help save them from extinction. Zoo biologists study wild populations of prairie butterflies to assess their status and the threats they face. In 2017, for the first time ever, Dakota skippers were returned to the wild to a prairie they had disappeared from. By rearing these butterflies during their sensitive caterpillar stages and eventually releasing them back to the prairies they have vanished from, this program is doing vital work for some of the most endangered butterfly species in the world.
The decline of these butterflies and other pollinating insects is alarming, but everyone can help! The Minnesota Zoo is committed to helping these fascinating animals and their rich habitats.
Prairie butterflies and other pollinators are struggling. Check out our Plant for Pollinators page for more information, including a large web-based and downloadable guide to dozens of great native wildflowers. Growing a variety of native plants throughout the year is a great way to support many pollinator species! And in the spring, delay garden clean-up until your area has experienced at least a few 50°F (10°C) days, allowing overwintering pollinators time to emerge and safely move on.
You can also “Get to Know Your Butterfly Neighbors” with this downloadable guide (en Español Conozca a sus Mariposas Vecinas). Free printed versions of this pamphlet are available at the Minnesota Zoo!
Click here for a great video of our prairie butterfly conservation in action thanks to our partner, Morrie’s Automotive Group. And a huge thanks to generous Zoo guests like you who donated to the program during the summer of 2014!
Key Staff: Erik Runquist, Butterfly Conservation Biologist, Minnesota Zoo
Cale Nordmeyer, Butterfly Conservation Specialist, Minnesota Zoo
Seth Stapleton, Director of Field Conservation, Minnesota Zoo
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