One of the world’s rarest butterflies, with fewer than one hundred remaining in the wild at recent surveys, resides right here in the prairie fens of southern lower Michigan. The tiny Poweshiek skipperling butterfly was once one of the most abundant butterflies in the Midwest, but habitat degradation and loss have resulted in the near extinction of this species throughout its range.
Conservation biologists have been working in recent years to recover the butterfly and its habitat—as detailed in MNA’s recent “Life on the Brink” mini-documentary—with assistance and funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The plight of the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly, however, extends beyond the borders of the state and is evidence of a greater ecological problem that affects many other species.
Unlike the distinctive orange and black markings of monarch butterflies, Poweshiek skipperling butterflies are small and brown, with few distinguishing features. The Poweshiek skipperling can be easily mistaken for one of their more common skipper counterparts like the European skipperling. Their small size also means that they are more likely to be stepped on than spotted, which presents a challenge for researchers who would like to raise awareness of the butterflies while simultaneously protecting their habitat from over-visitation.
The Poweshiek skipperling butterfly however is a symbol for the overall phenomenon of insect decline, not just in Michigan. Insects being the most abundant living creatures on earth, their decline and particularly a general lack of understanding of the cause of that decline is certainly reason to be concerned.
Fortunately, organizations like the Michigan Nature Association work to protect habitat for these species and participate in conservation efforts like those of the Poweshiek Skipperling International Partnership, all of which is guided and often funded by federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Endangered Species Act.
In southern Lower Michigan, the populated landscapes of farms, homes, and towns create predictable, right-angle patterns of human settlement when viewed from above. But winding across and through those straight-line grids, meandering corridors trace the paths of streams and rivers.
These corridors often harbor something really important, a dynamic natural community known as a floodplain forest. Floodplain forests are a vital part of Michigan’s natural heritage. Periodic flooding, scouring, erosion and sediment deposition follow the rise and fall of water levels creating diverse microhabitats that are used by a variety of wildlife.
Land meets water in a floodplain forest. When that stream or river tops its banks, it reshapes the bottom lands with tree falls, migrating river channels, new sediment deposits or erosional scour. These actions create fluvial landforms such as natural levees, backswamps, oxbow ponds, and terraces – all associated with a particular type of vegetation.
The flowing waters help the soils thaw earlier in the spring, meaning these are often the places where the first wildflowers bloom. Insects, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians appear almost simultaneously to take advantage of the food sources provided by these wildflowers. “These forests are often very important stopover or even nesting sites for declining neotropical migratory birds as well.” “Often they are the last forested strongholds in a lot of agriculturally-dominated landscapes and are therefore valuable for a variety of plants and animals.”
Threats to these impressive habitats are an all too familiar list – invasive plants and animals, hydrological modifications (levees, impoundments, channelization, dams), including those brought by climate change, habitat loss due to industrial, residential and agricultural fragmentation, and incompatible timber management. For those reasons, floodplain forests are both globally and state-ranked as vulnerable.
For sometimes being no more than a narrow, green edge along a river, the magnitude of floodplain forest benefits outweigh their seemingly limited size. Besides important habitat, they play a critical function in Michigan’s fight against climate change. When water flows across the land to a river, the floodplain forest serves as a buffer, absorbing both the quantity and the energy of that flow while filtering pollutants. Floodplain forests therefore help to protect the water quality in many of Michigan’s watersheds.
photos and storyby Lauren Ross, Communications & Events Coordinator
On a busy holiday weekend in late summer, I drove north as many people do, through slow-moving construction traffic, and past backed up lines of cars at the tollbooth on the Mackinac Bridge, continuing on until the number of cars on the road dwindled and the primary landmarks became decaying, abandoned motels and towering rows of pines. From there, turning off the main road onto a dirt road, I followed my GPS to an old forest service road (more two-track than road) up and down hills, and swerving left and right to avoid large rocks. Eventually I reached the end of the road, a big yellow sign on a pole announced “ROAD ENDS.”
At the trailhead a boot brush station informs visitors of the need to “Stop Invasive Species in their Tracks.” Beyond that, a trail is barely visible among the roots and rocks of the forest. I am grateful for the white diamonds nailed to trees that provide reassurance I am still on the path. It’s half-past three in the afternoon now, and the warmth of the sunlight peaks through cracks in the forest canopy. A recently downed tree partly blocks the trail about halfway in, but makes a nice seat as I swing my legs over. I know I am nearly there when I begin seeing blue diamonds through the trees—indicating the North Country Trail.
An old military-style canister rests on a post at the junction, inside are maps and a notebook for trail users to sign. There is a mix of factual information and colorful commentary on people’s treks. I continue straight across the NCT toward an opening in the trees. I have to duck past a few low-hanging branches, but soon come out onto a rock face to see the expanse of thousands of acres of forest, as far as I can see in all directions. A creek meanders through the trees several hundred feet below, and I am struck by the immense silence out on this cliff face. With barely a bird chirping, only a light breeze rattling the leaves overhead, I feel I must whisper to myself thoughts of awe and delight so as to not disturb the peace.
Back on the NCT, I headed in search of a suitable spot to set up my tent. The goal, an amazing sunrise view off to the east, overlooking those thousands of acres of forest. I finally decided on a spot about a mile from the initial overlook and set up my tent a safe distance from the edge of another cliff. Boiling some water to rehydrate my backpacking meal, I watched the long shadow of the ridge I was on extend out over the forest below as the sun began to set behind me to the west. I walked out onto the bluff and watched the nearly-full moon shine brightly in the bluish-purple sky that was becoming gradually darker. Then, with what remained of the day’s light I went to hang my food bag in a tree to keep it out of reach of any bears in the area.
At 3 a.m. I woke to my alarm as planned and laced up my boots, grabbed my camera, and carefully made my way to the cliff’s edge, my headlamp lighting the way. After setting up my tripod and camera, I turned off my headlamp and let my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. Faintly in the sky over the ridge to the north, I could see the flashes of light indicating the aurora borealis was active, and so I released the shutter on my camera. “Pillars!” I spoke more loudly to myself now—a measure of security to ensure that my presence didn’t surprise any wildlife in the night. For nearly an hour I watched the lights dance, shrinking and growing and shrinking again in intensity.
At 6:30 a.m. I woke again, the black sky turning gray as it began to regain its blue hue. In the forest below a fog had formed in the cool night air, and as the sun rose up over the horizon it released the moisture from the confines of the tree canopy where it gathered in low spots around creeks and ponds. With the aid of the fog, individual trees stood out in the forest below, and features of the landscape that were previously camouflaged became well-defined. The sun rose up over the nearby ridge, warming my face after a chilly night, and signaling that it was time to pack up and hike out before the day became too hot. But for one last moment, I took a deep breath of the fresh forest air and reveled in all that I had witnessed.
In Michigan, few places remain where people can experience nature on such a large scale. And though we have been reminded in recent years how important connecting to nature can be for our minds, bodies, and souls, threats continue to arise that could erase those places as we know them. Difficult to ignore were the flashing red lights of distant wind turbines even in this very remote place, a reminder that human-altered landscapes are everywhere. And like a crumpled piece of paper, these places, once altered, can never be the same again. So, they deserve our protection now.
Michigan nature is so full of wonder that… Some of the rarest species can be found here.
Once common across much of the Midwest, now one of the rarest butterflies—the globally endangered Poweshiek skipperling—exists in only a handful of locations in Manitoba (Canada) and northern Oakland County, including at an MNA nature sanctuary. Over the course of just a few decades, the population of Poweshieks has crashed, for reasons mostly unknown (see Plight of the Poweshiek story map here). In the most recent surveys in 2021 and 2022, the number of wild Poweshiek skipperlings surveyed in the field has continued to decline.
An international partnership that includes MNA, is working to better understand the reasons for the Poweshiek decline, and provide habitat and ex-situ (off-site) and captive rearing efforts to assist with recovery.
One such recovery effort involves partners at the Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo, and the Haddad Lab at Michigan State University. The research partners have been collecting Poweshiek skipperling eggs for a captive-rearing program to help the species recover. And last month, 12 captive-reared Poweshiek butterflies were released at MNA’s nature sanctuary—representing a milestone for MNA and hope for future generations of Poweshiek in the wild. In all, a few dozen butterflies were released this year in the program, with hundreds more eggs laid. These eggs will overwinter in the rearing facility at John Ball Zoo, for breeding and release next year.
In May, John Ball Zoo held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a second hoop house for the Poweshiek skipperling, more than doubling the capacity of the rearing program. “This is more than just a ray of hope. This is a giant leap forward,” explained Nick Haddad, who leads the Haddad Lab at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station.
MNA is proud to protect habitat critical for the Poweshiek skipperling’s survival, and to be part of the important partnership that is working to save this species from extinction. MNA looks forward to continuing participation in this partnership effort to increase the Poweshiek skipperling population in the wild in the coming years.