South Dakota Field Office
Mountain-Prairie Region

Dakota Skipper
Hesperia dacotae



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picture of Dakota skipperFAMILY:  Hesperiidae

DESCRIPTION:  The Dakota skipper is a small thick-bodied butterfly with a 1-inch wingspan.  They have a faster and more powerful flight than most butterflies.  The male's upper wings are tawny-orange to brown with a prominent mark on the forewing.  The lower surface of the wing is dusty yellow-orange.  The female's wing is darker brown with tawny-orange spots and a few white spots on the margin or the forewing.  Her lower side is gray-brown with a faint white spotband across the middle of the wing.  Dakota skipper pupae are reddish-brown.  The larvae are light brown with a black collar and dark brown head.  This skipper can be confused with Ottoe skipper which has slightly longer wings.

STATUS:   This species is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.  As a candidate, the USFWS has information to support the listing of this species, but other species have higher priority for listing.  Dakota skipper received a priority of 11 on a scale of 1-12.  

REASON FOR CURRENT STATUS:  Dakota skipper populations declined due to widespread conversion of native prairie for agriculture and other uses.  Many of the existing populations are isolated and existing habitat is fragmented.  Dakota skippers are sensitive to artificial and natural disturbances and are almost always absent from prairies that are overgrazed or degraded.

Historical persistence may have depended on the vastness of the prairie and the availability of immigrants to repopulate areas in which the species was eliminated by disturbances such as fire or intensive bison grazing.  Current threats include:  over-grazing, conversion to cultivated agriculture, inappropriate fire management and herbicide use, woody plant invasion, road construction, gravel mining, invasive plant species, and in some areas, historically high water levels.

Dakota skippers once occurred throughout the grassland areas in central United States and south-central Canada.  It now occurs in the fragmented sections of remaining grasslands.

REPRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT:   Skippers have four life stages - egg, larva, pupa and adult.   The short adult stage (2-3 weeks) occurs in June or July.  Females lay eggs on the underside of leaves close to the ground.  Eggs hatch in 10 days into larvae.  The larvae build shelters at or below the ground surface and emerge at night to feed on grass leaves.  Larvae become dormant in late summer or early fall.  Larvae emerge in spring and pupate in June.  Males emerge before females.

Females can lay as many as 250 eggs if sources of nectar are good.  Nectar provides both water and food.  Skippers prefer plants like the purple coneflower whose nectar cannot be obtained by insects without a relatively long, slender feeding tube.

RANGE:  Dakota skippers occur from northeast Illinois to southern Saskatchewan.  They currently occur no further east than western Minnesota.  It is believed that the species no longer exists (extirpated) in Illinois and Iowa.  The major populations can be found in western Minnesota, northeastern South Dakota and north-central and southeastern North Dakota.

POPULATION LEVEL:   Populations of Dakota skippers are known to occur, but no estimates of total population size exist. South Dakota remains one of the strongholds for this skipper. Dakota skippers are found primarily on the plateau in the northeastern corner of the state.

HABITAT:  It appears that Dakota skippers require tracts of native prairie consisting of bunchgrasses and an adequate number of forbs as nectar sources. Adult Dakota skippers appear to select purple coneflowers but will use other nectar sources if needed. Larvae appear to require native bunchgrasses for shelter and forage. Dakota skippers have not been found on habitats heavily overrun with exotic species. In South Dakota, Dakota skippers occur along transition zones of mixed and tallgrass prairie. They often are found in drier grasslands on the upper part of hilltops where purple coneflowers occur. 

In low (wet) prairie dominated by bluestem grasses, adults use the following wildflowers:  wood lily, harebell and smooth camas.

In upland (dry) prairie with bluestem grasses and needlegrasses, skippers use pale purple and upright coneflowers and blanketflower.

MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS:  Some of the existing threats include:  elimination of habitat for agriculture, grazing, grasshopper control/poisoning, invasion of habitat by leafy spurge, Canada thistle, Kentucky bluegrass or brome grass, chemical control of weeds, widespread fire and early haying in fragile and isolated prairie remnant habitats.

On public lands, land managers are modifying prescribed burn practices.  Although a natural component of most prairies, Dakota skippers are vulnerable to fire at all life stages and depend on unburned areas for repopulation.  Small portions of prairies should be burned in any given year.  Research is ongoing to better understand the effects of livestock grazing on Dakota skippers.

Management of grasslands for native prairie vegetation could provide suitable habitat for Dakota skippers. Fire management could be used to reduce exotic grass species while promoting the growth of native grasses.  However, this tool must be used judiciously to prevent the extirpation of Dakota skippers from a site.  Although Dakota skippers are fast flyers, it is unlikely they could outfly the front of a rapidly advancing fire.  To promote Dakota skipper populations, prescribed fires would have to occur

Management should focus on working with private landowners and other partners to conserve native prairie habitat.  Cooperative agreements are needed to allow for surveys and studies of the Dakota skipper.  Approximately 50 percent of the known populations are on private lands.  Private landowners should be encouraged to sell easements or secure conservation agreements that would facilitate land management practices conducive to the conservation of Dakota skipper and other native prairie species.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2002. Status Assessment and Conservation Guidelines, Dakota Skipper.  April 2002.

Marrone, G. 2002.  Field Guide to Butterflies of South Dakota.  SD GF&P.  Pierre, SD

Royer, R.A. and G.M. Marrone.  1992.  Conservation Status of the Dakota Skipper in North and South Dakota.  USFWS Report.



    US Fish & Wildlife Service, Candidate Form



    South Dakota Map of Current Known Distribution



    US Fish & Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Fact Sheet

Dakota Skipper Conservation Guidelines (51 KB)

USFWS Dakota Skipper Species Profile page




Last updated: September 9, 2013

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