MINNEAPOLIS— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected two rare prairie butterflies under the Endangered Species Act. Protection for the Dakota skipper results from a landmark 2011 settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity to speed protection decisions for 757 imperiled plants and animals across the country. The Service added the Poweshiek skipperling to the listing rule because it is highly endangered and shares habitat with the skipper. Both of the inch-long, brown-and-orange butterflies were once found in eight states in the Midwest and Great Lakes region but declined due to loss of native prairie habitat.
“It’s great news that these remarkable little butterflies now have the Endangered Species Act protection that will save them and their beautiful prairie homes,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center.
Both butterflies are threatened by loss of native prairie vegetation to agriculture, development, altered fire patterns and groundwater depletion. They are also threatened by pesticides, drought and climate change.
Last year the Service proposed to protect 39,035 acres of habitat for the butterflies, and that designation is expected to be finalized soon. The proposed habitat protection includes 27,782 acres of habitat for the Dakota skipper in 10 counties in Minnesota, six counties in North Dakota and six counties in South Dakota. For the Poweshiek skipperling, the proposal includes 26,184 acres of habitat in 14 counties in Minnesota, seven counties in Iowa, seven counties in South Dakota, six counties in Michigan, three counties in North Dakota and two counties in Wisconsin.
“Protecting the last high-quality prairie habitats for the butterflies will keep these special places safe, along with all the other plants and animals that need them to survive,” said Curry.
The Dakota skipper is a small butterfly with hooked antennae and a thick, muscular body that enables a faster, more powerful flight than other butterflies. Males are tawny-orange to brown on the back of their wings and dusty yellow-orange on the underside; females are darker with diffused orange and white spots. It once occurred in tall grass and mixed grass prairies of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It has been lost from Illinois and Iowa and in the United States is currently found only in western Minnesota, northeastern South Dakota and the eastern half of North Dakota. The butterfly was last seen in Illinois in 1888 and in Iowa in 1992. It persists at 35 percent of its historically known sites.
Poweshiek skipperlings are small and slender-bodied. Their wings are dark brown with an orange band on top and whitish underneath. Skipperlings were once common and abundant throughout native prairies in eight states and Manitoba, but they are now known to survive at only 5 percent of historically known sites. The skipperling has been lost from Illinois and Indiana. It was last seen in North Dakota in 2001, in Minnesota in 2007 and in Iowa and South Dakota in 2008. Small numbers survive in Michigan, Wisconsin and Manitoba.
The Dakota skipper was first identified as being in need of protection in 1978. The Service placed the Poweshiek skipperling on the candidate list in 2011.
In 2011 the Center and Service reached a settlement to speed protections for all the species on the candidate waiting list as of 2010, as well as a host of other species previously petitioned for protection. To date 139 plants and animals have received protection as a result of the agreement, and another 14 have been proposed for protection.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is making excellent progress in addressing the backlog of unprotected plants and animals that are facing extinction,” said Curry. “Now Congress needs to designate sufficient funding for recovery to make sure these endangered species get what they need to thrive.”