When we think about landscape conservation, we tend to think big – big problems that require big solutions. But sometimes, it’s the little things that have the greatest impacts. The beating wings of a small butterfly might just be what is needed to save our nation’s grasslands. The butterfly is called the Dakota skipper.
Aptly named, these butterflies are found in North Dakota, and currently that is one of the few places wild populations appear to be thriving. The Dakota skipper’s range once spanned the prairies from Montana to Minnesota and possibly even farther, but a combination of factors, including widespread loss of native grasslands, has caused a dramatic decline in its populations. The Dakota skipper was protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2014 and since then, biologists have been trying to save this species. What they found could reshape the way many people look at conservation.
It is certainly no easy feat to conserve any species, and Dakota skippers are no exception. These butterflies are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss because they rely on high-quality grasslands that are rich with biodiversity. They are further at a disadvantage due to their short adult life cycle – after emerging, these little butterflies only survive for two weeks, and in that time, they need to breed and lay eggs for the next generation. If mating is not successful in this short window, the population will cease to exist.
These natural biological challenges are then made worse by human-caused changes to their habitat. A major threat to grasslands is invasion from non-native grasses and encroachment by trees and shrubs. These invaders replace native grasses and flowers, resulting in habitat that is unsuitable for pollinators, including the Dakota skipper. Disturbances from landscape conversion for agriculture and energy production make it even more difficult to find and preserve suitable habitat for Dakota skippers.
Why This Butterfly?
It might seem strange at first to consider how much effort has been poured into saving one butterfly. After all, they only fly for two weeks – how much does it really matter, in the end?
Well, as it turns out – it matters a lot. Wendy Velman, Botanist with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), explains:
“When I look at a landscape, I want to manage for the native species that should be there. Skipper habitats are mostly native landscapes – they show us what the landscape should be. Focusing on a species provides for other species that we are not paying attention to. The question I ask is ‘If skippers are present, what else is there?’ Skippers serve as surrogates for the health of that landscape – like the canary in the coal mine; if we lose skippers, what else will we have lost? Skippers can help us understand that insects are an important part of an ecosystem. Insects are the undervalued key to healthy ecosystems.”
Dakota skippers, like any other pollinators, are an important piece of a healthy ecosystem. Without them, we see a chain reaction of loss. Wildlife that rely on the food chain are forced to move on in the absence of sustenance, creating a domino effect of biodiversity decline. Pollinators are also a major component of agriculture and food production, serving communities and economies alike. Saving the Dakota skipper is just as important as our efforts to save bees and other butterflies like monarchs; no one species can support an ecosystem alone – it takes a community.
Skipping to Solutions
And a community is exactly what has formed in the wake of this species’ decline. An unlikely alliance was formed that has since demonstrated the incredible possibilities when people find ways to work together. This alliance of partners, all of whom have different priorities, has put aside their differences and found a way to move together on common ground, building upon a shared understanding and respect.
In North Dakota, what was initially perceived as an incompatibility ended up being the perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork for collaborative conservation without conflict. In 2019, an oil and gas company proposed building a pipeline in an area of North Dakota occupied by Dakota skippers. From a conservation standpoint, this was a disaster for the Dakota skipper, losing more land to conversion while at the same time introducing more pollutants into a pristine prairie.
Whereas such a proposal would normally cause years of conflict, delaying development while straining conservation agencies’ time and money, a compromise was reached to relocate the population. With funding from the oil and gas industry, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Minnesota Zoo partnered together to collect the skippers from the property and transfer them to the Zoo, where biologists could establish a captive breeding program. The following year over 360 descendants of those butterflies were released in North Dakota.
Eddie Zedaker, who was working in the industry at the time, was directly involved in the efforts to mitigate impacts to Dakota skippers. “Initially, nobody really knew what to do, not even USFWS. The Dakota skipper had just been listed and we had to scramble to figure things out. At first, there was a bit of tension – what is this moth thing, it’s going to cause problems for us – but over time, that sentiment changed. We kept in touch with the people at USFWS and we figured this out together. Rather than see each other as adversaries, we came together and figured things out together, as partners. That’s what made it successful – it wasn’t us versus them. We overcame the challenges together and figured out how to do this butterfly justice. We started to appreciate the skipper and the efforts to get the industry involved in mitigation and conservation.”
“We have to work together, we complement each other.” Eric Rosenquist, Conservation Program Coordinator for the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust.
Since then, the roster of partners involved in Dakota skipper conservation has grown to include multiple oil and gas companies, private landowners, state and federal agencies, and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Craig Larson, a lifelong outdoorsman and landowner in central North Dakota, places a high value on nature and maintaining our natural resources. When Craig noticed USFWS biologists conducting a Dakota skipper survey, he invited them onto his land to search for the elusive butterfly – and they found some.
“It was an easy ‘yes’ for me to raise my hand” Craig said. “When I heard this butterfly needs high-quality prairie, it gave me a sense of pride in my land. My passion for the health of the community is biodiversity and also working lands. It’s important these lands remain working lands while also creating healthy landscapes. I try to be a good landowner and a good neighbor.”
Jerry Reinisch, fish and wildlife biologist with the USFWS, leads the Service’s efforts to conserve the Dakota skipper and has watched this community grow and evolve into what it is today. “Within the oil and gas industry, we are seeing them starting to look at how they can mitigate their impact – they're asking us what they can do.” In 2022, oil and gas companies paid for extra skipper surveys, a gesture that demonstrates the shared value in conserving this species.
Eddie Zedaker witnessed this firsthand when his company donated funds to the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust for skipper conservation. “It was really cool to know that we had a direct impact on the skippers. The company was really excited, it was something we’d never done before.” Eddie was so inspired by his experience with skipper conservation that he joined the North Dakota Petroleum Council to advocate for conservation and industry-led mitigation efforts to reduce their impact on local ecosystems. Now, Eddie has moved into mitigation banking as a direct result of his work with Dakota skippers.
"There is a bigger world outside of our footprint. There are more species, more pollinators, than the skippers, we need to save our pollinators – they make the world go round, it’s going to be tough to replicate what they do for our society if we lose them.” Eddie Zedaker
Working Lands Working for the Skipper
In North Dakota, agriculture is another significant component of the economy, and for many, it’s a way of life. For some producers, the thought of having a threatened butterfly on their working lands is far from ideal, introducing another factor that they have to consider when managing their land. Landowner Craig Larson felt differently and considered the value of species conservation as part of his efforts to maintain healthy working lands.
“We have animals that are imperiled and on the verge of extinction. This is all part of the web of life – I wouldn't hesitate if my land was suitable for an endangered or threatened species. I would love to think that, through my work, I can help.” Craig Larson
What the skipper’s story has demonstrated is that conservation doesn’t have to come with conflict. Conservation on working lands is possible, and it can lead to healthier and more productive lands. “All of these things fit together,” Craig added. “Biodiversity, working land, healthy landscapes, species conservation. It’s not an either-or – it's all of the above. A healthy prairie means a good water cycle, filtration, soil health, carbon in soil, plant diversity, native plant communities, native animal communities with birds and native wildlife. Healthy prairie means productivity; more diverse landscapes are more productive.”
Jerry Reinisch has seen this perspective begin to take hold in the communities he lives and works in. “In the last 10 years, we are seeing the financial implications of conservation. Even the older generation of landowners, many of whom are set in their ways, have changed their views once they see that the financial risks aren’t as great as they thought – and, in fact, that there is financial benefit.”
What is particularly interesting about the skippers’ story is how working lands aren’t just compatible: in most cases, there is mutual benefit. Scott McLeod has regularly witnessed this with the landowners and conservation partners he has worked with over the years in North Dakota, including Craig Larson. “The working lands approach to conservation focuses on working with conservation-minded private landowners to develop voluntary conservation practices that are mutually beneficial to the landowners as well as our soil, water, and priority wildlife species, such as pollinators. This model has been shown to be very successful and builds successful partnerships that create true and lasting conservation success.”
Certain land management practices, such as regenerative grazing, incorporate a more natural approach to ranching that aligns closer to what the landscape would have looked like when herds of wild bison, pronghorn, and elk roamed the region.
“We can’t do it by ourselves.” Scott Mcleod, North Dakota Partners for Fish and Wildlife Coordinator
On the Cross Ranch in central North Dakota, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) manages working lands that also happen to be known Dakota skipper habitat. Cross Ranch Preserve Manager Chris Gordon manages herds of cattle and bison on the Ranch and has seen for himself the difference when the land is properly maintained. Using a mixture of rotational grazing and prescribed fire, TNC has kept Cross Ranch a healthy, thriving working land that serves as a diverse habitat for livestock, skippers, and other wildlife.
Meanwhile, state and federal agencies are working alongside these partners, using their collective expertise to find solutions. While USFWS manages some skipper habitat and serves as the lead for the ESA, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) also maintains grassland sites that are used for skipper re-introductions. BLM plans to provide the Minnesota Zoo with coneflower seed (a staple food for newly emerged adults) and is looking for more native flower species that can enrich the Zoo’s breeding program. BLM also works with North Dakota Game and Fish to monitor and conduct inventories.
USFWS Biologist Tim Zachmeier, formerly with BLM, was working on federal mineral extraction efforts with BLM when he began having conversations with oil companies about avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating ecological damage. Through these conversations, Zachmeier emphasized that “if the oil companies take the resources, then something has to be given back in return.” This laid the blueprint to get all parties working together towards a common goal to address and mitigate the impacts of development. Through these efforts with BLM, additional funding was provided to help support skipper conservation.
“The more we can collaborate and use our different expertise, the more we can find solutions that benefit everyone.” - Wendy Velman
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is developing a scientific approach to find evidence of Dakota skippers in the wild – without needing to be on-site during flight season. This is a non-lethal alternative to collecting butterflies for inventory and monitoring. Given their short lifespan, Dakota skippers can be hard to find in the wild, so this method collects DNA from flowers instead. Researchers developed this technique for the Western bumblebee, and now they’re hoping to replicate if for the skippers. Since butterflies interact with flowers differently than bees – landing lightly versus rolling around in the pollen – researchers are hoping that the butterflies leave behind enough scales to allow for E-DNA testing, but only time will tell. In 2022, USGS received flower samples from BLM and USFWS scientists, as well as genome samples from the Zoo, and researchers are now studying the samples.
Representing everything from scientific innovation to traditional land management practices, these partners have demonstrated that collaboration in conservation is possible, even when our priorities seem incompatible. Leveraging creativity, resilience, and mutual respect, we are finding ways to preserve native prairie, which benefits Dakota skippers and their ecosystem alike, while using the best-available science to really understand this butterfly and what it needs to rebound. This little butterfly’s story is one for us all to learn from: When the smallest among us is in peril, we all suffer. It takes a community to help - and doing so often is to the benefit of all.
Written by Christina Stone in collaboration with Drew Becker, Luke Toso, John Carlson, Jerry Reinisch, Scott McLeod, Matt Trott, Wendy Velman, and Tim Zachmeier
With many thanks to the partners helping restore the Dakota skipper: Craig Larson, Eddie Zedaker, Rachelle Williamson, The Nature Conservancy, North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, Minnesota, Zoo, State of North Dakota Department of Agriculture, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Dakota Prairie Grassland Network, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.