Native prairie covered 18 million acres of western and southern Minnesota in the 1800s (about a third of the state), and this landscape has played a central role in Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage. Now, only 1% of the original native “tallgrass prairie” remains, and many animals and plants that depend on prairie have declined or even disappeared. For example, the Poweshiek skipperling was once one of Minnesota’s most abundant prairie butterflies, but it may now be extinct in the state (not been seen in since 2007)! This skipperling has also apparently disappeared from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa in the same time, and fewer than 2000 individuals may remain globally! In fact, many prairie butterflies are in trouble, with 10 of the 15 butterfly species considered “Threatened”, “Endangered”, or of “Special Concern” by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources being prairie dependents. The Poweshiek skipperling and the Dakota skipper are high-priority “Candidates” for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Butterflies are “canary in the coalmine” indicators of prairie health because they are very sensitive to changes in their environment.
In recognition of the dire state of Minnesota’s prairie and its butterflies, the Minnesota Zoo established the Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program in 2012 led by Dr. Erik Runquist. Partnering with many agencies and organizations, it aims to prevent the extinction of native prairie butterflies, understand the reasons for their declines, and ensure that populations are sustained long-term. The Zoo is also establishing “insurance breeding populations” to prevent the global extinction of highly imperiled prairie butterflies like the Poweshiek skipperling. It is also conducting field surveys of prairie butterfly populations, studying population genetics, and investigating the impacts of different management practices on prairie butterfly populations.
Erik is also performing outreach and education about the importance of butterflies and their prairie habitats. As Minnesota’s largest environmental learning center, with over 1.3 million guests annually and featuring the summer Aveda Butterfly Garden, the Zoo is uniquely positioned to raise awareness about these fascinating species, their conservation needs, and actions people can take to help.
And a generous field vehicle donation from Morrie’s Mazda
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