The Dakota skipper is a small butterfly that lives in high-quality mixed and tallgrass prairie. The species experienced a decline coinciding with the conversion and degradation of its prairie habitat and was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, and critical habitat was designated. The Dakota skipper lost 85 to 99% of its original tallgrass prairie in their historical range that once included Illinois and Iowa and now occurs in remnants of native mixed and tallgrass prairie in Minnesota, the Dakotas and southern Canada. Dakota skippers may survive in areas where lands have some grazing or haying, and in fact, they are dependent on habitat that experiences periodic disturbance; however, Dakota skippers disappear when these disturbances become too intense, as noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
What’s being done to conserve Dakota skipper?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized the recovery plan for the Dakota Skipper in 2021. The goal of the Dakota skipper recovery plan is to work with partners to stop the species’ decline and ensure its long-term survival. Recovery actions for the Dakota skipper focus on reducing threats to existing populations, such as conserving and enhancing prairie habitat by working with many different stakeholders, including private landowners. The plan also outlines measures to enhance existing populations and establish new ones through captive propagation, such as through the Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program. Recovery planning is one step in a process to address threats to endangered and threatened species. The plan provides a road map for private, tribal, federal and state cooperation in conserving the Dakota skipper and its habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and states are working with private landowners and other partners in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota to conserve the Dakota skipper’s native prairie habitat. With cooperation from many landowners, we survey and study Dakota skippers and have entered into cooperative agreements to conserve their native prairie habitat. Conservation of the Dakota skipper depends on land stewardship carried out by private landowners because about 50 percent of all known populations are on private lands; this excludes lands owned by conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. There are many options available for private landowners interested in conserving prairie habitat. Landowners are encouraged to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explore these options.
Public land managers use a variety of management tools to conserve native prairie, mainly haying, prescribed fire and grazing. Each presents a significant challenge when trying to conserve Dakota skippers. Land managers and biologists are encouraged to work together using science-based adaptive management to develop and refine strategies that are practical and conserve Dakota skippers.
Finally, research is ongoing to better understand Dakota skippers, such as the species' genetic diversity, and surveys for the species are ongoing to locate populations yet undiscovered.
Location in Taxonomic Tree
Dakota skippers live in two types of prairies. One type is moist bluestem prairie in which three wildflower species are usually blooming when Dakota skippers are adults: wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) and smooth camas (Zygadenus elegans). The second type is upland prairie that is relatively dry and often found on ridges and hillsides. Bluestem grasses and needlegrasses dominate these prairies; purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) is typical of high quality sites that support this skipper, although it also uses other flowers for nectar. Both of these habitat types are unlikely to be re-established on a site that has been plowed. Therefore, activities that maintain the original native grass habitat are fundamental to the species’ conservation. according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.
Environments influenced by humans in a less substantial way than cities. This can include agriculture, silvaculture, aquaculture, etc.
The upper side of the male’s wing is tawny-orange to brown with a prominent mark on the forewing; the lower surface is dusty yellow-orange.The upper side of the female’s wing is darker brown with tawny-orange spots and a few white spots on the forewing margin; the lower side is gray-brown with a faint white spot band across the middle.Dakota skipper pupae are reddish-brown, and the larvae, or caterpillars, are light brown with a black “collar” and dark brown head. Young larvae are green with dark head and “collar," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The adult Dakota skipper is a small to medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan of about an inch (2–3 cm) with hooked antennae, as noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Dakota skippers have four basic life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. During the brief adult period in June and July, females lay eggs on the underside of leaves. Eggs take about 10 days to hatch into larvae, or caterpillars. After hatching, larvae build shelters at or below the ground surface and emerge at night to feed on grass leaves. This continues until fall when larvae become dormant. They overwinter in shelters at or just below ground level, usually in the base of native bunchgrasses. The following spring, larvae emerge to continue developing. Pupation takes about 10 days and usually happens in June, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Adult males emerge from pupae about five days before females, and the adults live for three weeks, at most. This brief period is the only time that Dakota skippers can reproduce. If a female Dakota skipper lives for the full three weeks and adequate flowers for nectar are available, she may lay up to 250 eggs. Nectar, providing both water and food, is crucial for survival of both sexes during the adult flight period, which often occurs during the hottest part of summer. according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Access to nectar during the flight period is a critical need for adult Dakota skippers. Dakota skippers typically nectar on native flowers found within their prairie habitat.
Dakota skipper larvae, caterpillars, feed on several native grass species, but little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a more frequent food source. Little bluestem and other bunchgrasses provide Dakota skipper caterpillars with a large cluster of edible grass as noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Adult male Dakota skippers exhibit perching behavior, perching on tall plants to search for females, but they occasionally appear to patrol in search of mating opportunities, as noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Adult Dakota skippers may be confused with the Ottoe skipper (H. ottoe), which is somewhat larger with proportionally longer wings, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Historically, scientists recorded Dakota skippers from northeast Illinois to southern Saskatchewan. However, their actual historical range is not known because extensive destruction of native prairie preceded widespread biological surveys in the central United States. Dakota skippers likely lived throughout the unbroken, vast grasslands of the north-central United States and south-central Canada, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Dakota skippers have been lost from Illinois and Iowa and are present only in scattered, mostly isolated, sites in Minnesota, the Dakotas and southern Canada. Since 2002, the number of sites where Dakota skippers can be found has been on a downward trend with a more dramatic decrease after 2010. Currently, this butterfly may occur at only one quarter of the sites where it was previously recorded, as noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The most significant populations may be in North Dakota, northeastern South Dakota, western Minnesota and southern Manitoba. Concern is growing about the status of the Dakota skipper in Minnesota and South Dakota.
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