Fair State on the Prairie

Fair State & the Minnesota Zoo: A Wild Partnership

By Rose Picklo, QA/QC and Production Tech.

Last Friday I had the privilege of hiking through Glacial Lakes State Park with Cale Nordmeyer of the Minnesota Zoo. My goal was to capture wild yeast; Cale’s, to spot a Regal fritillary. This butterfly is designated as Minnesota Special Concern, meaning that a species is extremely uncommon, or that it has highly unique and specific habitat requirements (Minnesota DNR). The Regal fritillary only lives in tallgrass prairie; Glacial Lakes is part of the 1% of natural prairie remaining in Minnesota.

Glacial Lakes State Park
Glacial Lakes State Park. Photo Credit: Cale Nordmeyer, MN Zoo

Butterflies and the prairie are intertwined. Prairie flowers rely on them for pollination, which occurs as they feed on the flower’s nectar.  As our natural prairies have dwindled, so have species like the Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling. The Dakota skipper is a prairie specialist, unable to survive in any other environment. Until the early 2000s, Dakota skippers were fairly common. Now, they can only be found in declining numbers at one or two other protected sites in the state. The Poweshiek skipperling hasn’t been seen in Minnesota since 2007 and may already be extinct in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa. Less than 500 Poweshieks may exist globally.

Cale works at the Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program, the world’s first and only rearing and breeding program for the endangered Dakota skipper. Studying the Dakota skipper in a modified shipping container, Cale creates miniature habitats with a few blades of grass, wire, and pantyhose. Dakota skippers seem to prefer porcupine grass, with which they build small, volcanic-shaped structures. These structures are necessary for the skipper caterpillars to survive the harsh prairie winters. Cale experiments with other prairie grasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indian grass to mimic how the test subjects may perform in the wild. It is worth noting Dakota skippers have only been successfully bred since 2014.

Painted Lady on Purple Cone Flower. Photo Credit: Cale Nordmeyer, MN Zoo

Thanks to the Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program, about 200 Dakota skippers were reintroduced to the wild for the very first time this past June. However, the battle for survival is not over yet. Natural prairie sites are small, few and far between. The skippers must manage to actually find a mate within their sites. Even if pairs mate successfully, maintaining genetic diversity in small populations is a struggle without outside gene flow. And if a natural disaster were to occur at one of these isolated sites, that population may be entirely wiped out. Imagine flying hundreds of miles between habitats, battling the elements, dodging predators, finally arriving at a tallgrass prairie site, certain you’re going to find more Dakota skippers like yourself…and realizing you are completely alone.

So what can we do? Vast fields of monocultures and pesticides aren’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future; wild prairie restoration isn’t going to happen overnight. Planting pollinator friendly gardens is a step in the right direction. Some of you may remember Dakota Skipper, our summer saison brewed with prairie grasses and bee balm. Our goal is to raise both awareness and funds for the conservation effort. A beer alone isn’t going to save the butterflies, but it’s a start.