January–February 2024


Return of the Skipper

A rare butterfly gets a second chance at Glacial Lakes State Park.

Kristi Coughlon (DNR information officer)

On a warm day last July, I stood atop a rolling ridge at Glacial Lakes State Park in west-central Minnesota, taken aback by the beauty of the prairie-covered hillsides around me. As an information officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, I was at the park to document the reintroduction of the Dakota skipper. 

This rare butterfly species, last seen at Glacial Lakes in 2005, lives in tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie, of which only remnants remain. The Dakota skipper is listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act as endangered in Minnesota and is considered threatened throughout the country. Once common across much of the state, the butterfly has dropped to very low numbers due to habitat loss. 

In 2017, Minnesota State Parks and Trails partnered with the Minnesota Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Dakota Skipper Conservation Initiative, with the goal of re-establishing a self-sustaining wild population at Glacial Lakes State Park.

Cindy Lueth, DNR northwest region resource specialist, heads a crew that’s been enhancing remnant native prairie sites at Glacial Lakes State Park. “Park resource staff have been working for years harvesting and planting seed from native prairie vegetation and hand-planting thousands of narrow-leaved purple coneflowers, a preferred nectar source of the skipper,” says Lueth.

The Glacial Lakes skipper reintroduction is part of Minnesota Zoo’s broader Pollinator Conservation Initiative, which began in 2012 and created the world’s first skipper rearing and breeding program. The zoo rears hundreds of Dakota skippers annually, then releases and monitors them to help re‐establish lost populations. “Helping these butterflies return to our prairies supports not only other wildlife but our quality of life,” says Minnesota Zoo butterfly conservation biologist Erik Runquist. "Our hope is to continue to work toward successful releases and re-establish populations throughout the region.” 

On my July visit to Glacial Lakes, our small group walked to a release site, led by Minnesota Zoo butterfly conservation biologist Cale Nordmeyer. When we arrived, Nordmeyer opened a mesh cage filled with adult skippers and carefully coaxed one of the butterflies onto a paintbrush. One at a time, he set the skippers lightly on narrow-leaved purple coneflowers, where they immediately began to feed on the flowers’ nectar.

If all goes well, these skippers will spend their short adult lifespan—a few weeks—feeding and mating. The resulting skipper eggs will hatch into caterpillars that will go dormant in the fall and hopefully transform into butterflies by next June. 

In the meantime, butterfly biologists and park resource specialists hope their hard work and commitment to prairie conservation will draw attention to the importance of creating healthy ecosystems and securing a future for one of the state’s most imperiled pollinator species.