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A threatened female Dakota skipper is released on a purple coneflower at Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie Preserve in Minnesota. Photo by Kim Mitchell/USFWS.

A threatened female Dakota skipper is released on a purple coneflower at Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie Preserve in Minnesota. Photo by Kim Mitchell/USFWS.

In historic recovery step Dakota skippers reintroduced in Minnesota

This summer, the Minnesota Zoo, in partnership with the Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducted the first-ever reintroduction of the threatened Dakota skipper at The Nature Conservancy’s Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie preserve. This once widespread prairie butterfly has nearly vanished from much of its former range and is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act list and as endangered by the state of Minnesota.

“This is what we have been working towards,” says Dr. Erik Runquist, Minnesota Zoo’s Butterfly Conservation Biologist. “These amazing butterflies have a chance to thrive again thanks to all the efforts of the Minnesota Zoo and our outstanding partners. This is definitely a team effort and we are thrilled to have made so much progress thus far.”

In partnership with multiple agencies, the Minnesota Zoo began a conservation breeding program for Dakota skippers behind the scenes in 2013. The program began by visiting sites within the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal lands in South Dakota where females were collected and released after 48 hours. The eggs they laid were brought back to be raised at the zoo. 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 individuals from Minnesota.

Although this release marks a significant milestone for the dwindling species, there is much more to learn and do to re-introduce Dakota skippers to sites where they were once found.

“Although we are thrilled to have learned and accomplished this much so far, there is still a long road ahead for these butterflies before they’re in the clear,” continued Dr. Runquist. “This is the first time a reintroduction has been attempted for this species and we are looking at this as a valuable learning opportunity for future success.”

The Dakota skipper is native to central North America and is a prairie specialist that can live in no other habitat. Today, only about 1 percent of Minnesota’s original tallgrass prairie remains and much of what is left is fragmented into small isolated remnants. Dakota skipper caterpillars feed solely on grasses and adults feed on nectar from a variety of prairie flowers, like the narrow-leaf purple coneflower. Although the average lifespan is one year, this butterfly lives only about two weeks as an adult.

Years of surveys by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologists indicate that Dakota skippers have likely disappeared from dozens of sites across Minnesota and now can only be found in one or two places in the state. The species was once common at The Conservancy’s Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie but has not been seen at the preserve in eight years.

In addition to the Service, the Minnesota Zoo’s efforts to save Dakota skippers have been supported by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Disney Conservation Fund through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Grants Fund, the Minnesota Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, Aveda, Fair State Brewing Cooperative, Morrie’s Automotive Group, as well as donations from zoo guests and members.

From a Minnesota Zoo news release

These male and female Dakota skippers were among the first ever reintroduced in the wild. Photo by Andrew Horton/USFWS.

These male and female Dakota skippers were among the first ever reintroduced in the wild. Photo by Andrew Horton/USFWS.

 

Last updated: June 8, 2020