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Stateside Podcast: Saving the Poweshiek skipperling

Chances are you've seen a Poweshiek skipperling butterfly and not even known it. The tiny, moth-like insect is picky when it comes to choosing its home turf. Across the upper Midwest, it's found only in prairies and prairie fens, a type of wetland community. In Michigan, the small butterflies live in just a few southeastern counties. But in recent decades, prairies started to change, and in many cases, disappear completely.

"Native prairies now make up about less than 1% of what they did historically," said David Pavlik, a research associate with the Michigan State University Haddad Lab. "A lot of that is due to just habitat destruction, changing prairies into cornfields or using those prairies as areas to build residences. But there's also different types of habitat destruction which we're seeing a lot of now, which is these invasive species that are invading the remaining prairies and prairie fens."

Pavlik's lab is part of partnership with John Ball Zoo and several other organizations that are working to repopulate the Poweshiek skipperling in its native habitats. But repopulation is complicated. Researchers have to solve for a number of things outside of their control, like farmers using harmful insecticides that inadvertently kill the delicate butterflies, and warmer winters making it harder for caterpillars to survive in the wild.

"[The Poweshiek skipperling] is an indicator species. So seeing these declines happen this rapidly is telling us that something is wrong in the environment. And it's not just affecting Poweshiek skipperling, it's probably affecting just about everything that lives in these prairies and prairie fens. Prairie butterflies have been declining, range-wide, for a long time. This is just kind of the poster child for how bad those declines can be," said Pavlik.

But understanding these declines and changing their trajectory will benefit a whole host of ecologically important species, and the Poweshiek skipperling is just the starting point. That's why researchers, zoos, non-profits, government organizations, and even individuals across the upper Midwest are teaming up to get the little insect back on its feet.

"The recovery wouldn't be possible without the landowners that we also work with. And so, they're managing that habitat, they're taking out invasive species. ... Springfield Township, and Oakland County, and Michigan Nature Association, they've been really improving the habitat for Poweshiek skipperling so that we can get more butterflies out there," said Pavlik.

After years of trial-and-error with breeding the pollinators in captivity, researchers have finally started to see success. 2023 is gearing up to be one of the biggest — if not the biggest — wild release Pavlik's team has done, with nearly a thousand captive caterpillars set to join and strengthen existing populations in Michigan.

"As we continue to build up this program, we're hoping that we can not only augment those populations that do still exist, that are just barely hanging on, but we want to start doing reintroductions back into areas that used to have Poweshiek skipperlings that no longer do. That's really how we can start to change the trajectory for the Poweshiek skipperling."

Hear more about what it takes to bring a species back from the brink on this episode of Stateside.

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Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.
Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.