Prairie butterflies

Species Status:
Ottoe skipper (Hesperia ottoe): Endangered in Canada
Dakota skipper (Hesperia dacotae): Threatened in Canada
Poweshiek skipperling (Oarisma poweshiek): Threatened in Canada
Action Required: Reintroduction

Since the 1850s, over 99 per cent of North America’s native prairies have been lost to agriculture and overgrazing, putting the survival of many prairie species, including several butterflies, in serious jeopardy.

The Ottoe skipper, Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling (pictured) are small prairie butterflies with wingspans about as wide as a toonie (ranging from 21 to 35 millimetres). Like all butterflies, these species go through several stages of transformation: from caterpillar to pupa to adult. During these stages, they depend on prairie-specific plants. Eggs are laid on the underside of grasses that sustain the caterpillars that emerge, while adults feed on the nectar of a variety of native flowering plants.

The Dakota skipper is found in native tallgrass prairies and dry, upland mixed-grass prairies. Similarly, the Ottoe skipper prefers sand prairies and mixed-grass prairies with bluestem and other medium-height grasses. The Poweshiek skipperling is found in native tallgrass prairie but needs both wet and dry habitats at different life stages. As caterpillars, Poweshiek skipperlings feed on plants found in the wetter areas, whereas the adults rely on plants like black-eyed Susan that grow in drier areas.

The Ottoe skipper occurs in very isolated populations from southern Manitoba south to Michigan and Texas and west to Colorado. However, it’s possible it no longer exists in Canada, with the last recorded sighting in this country in 1986.

In the United States, the Dakota skipper is found in isolated populations in North and South Dakota to western Minnesota. In Canada, these butterflies are only found in southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan.

The Poweshiek skipperling occurs in isolated pockets in the northern United States. In Canada, this species has only been found in and around Manitoba’s Tall Grass Prairie Preserve.

Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are the main threats to prairie butterflies. Since the arrival of Europeans, over 99 per cent of native prairies have been converted to grow crops and graze farm animals. The plants that adults and larvae depend on are scarce in agricultural areas, and those butterflies that remain are at increased risk of being trampled by livestock. Fires, invasive species — and the chemical spraying to control those species — also pose serious risks to prairie butterflies, while climate change and inclement weather may add further pressure.

Recommended Recovery Actions

Federal recovery strategies for these butterflies call for a number of conservation measures, including conducting population surveys in historically occupied sites, stewarding habitat, identifying host plants, identifying unoccupied habitat that might be suitable for reintroductions and assessing the feasibility of re-establishing certain populations.

What we are doing

These prairie butterflies are on Wildlife Preservation Canada’s priority list for potential future action. Find out how we are currently saving other Canadian butterflies such as the Taylor’s checkerspot and Karner blue, and how you can make a difference.