Life on the Brink: Endangered Butterfly Gets a Helping Hand

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.

Poweshiek skipperling. Photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo.


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.

Dave Pavlik, a research assistant at the Haddad Lab, places a Poweshiek skipperling caterpillar into a special enclosure at John Ball Zoo. Photo by Lauren Ross.


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.

Dave Pavlik, a research assistant at the Haddad Lab, releases a captive-reared Poweshiek skipperling butterfly on a Black-eyed susan. Photo by Lauren Ross.


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.

Ten Years After Major Wildfire, Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Sees Remarkable Recovery

On June 15, 2012 after burning more than 21,000 acres including part of MNA’s Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary in Luce County, the Duck Lake Fire was officially contained. Now, 10 years later, we are taking a look at what has changed at this sanctuary as a result of the fire.

The sanctuary derives its name from the surrounding area known as the Swamp Lakes which is of significant importance as a large block of wildlife habitat. This area is known to be frequented by moose, gray wolf, pine marten, and numerous other species of wildlife requiring a landscape intermingled with forests and wetlands.

The forest here is dominated by Jack and Red Pines which, once mature, create a dormant understory of easily burning materials—a critical part of the Jack Pine life cycle as their cones will not release seeds except under the extreme heat of fire.

But the Jack Pine isn’t the only benefactor of wildfire. As William Rapai wrote in the July/August issue of Jack Pine Warbler, “Only days after the fire was brought under control, bark beetles moved in to eat the damaged trees. And where there are insects, there are insect-eating birds—including the Black-backed Woodpecker, a species of special concern in Michigan… That woodpecker species is associated with burned areas because one of its primary foods—the bark beetle—attacks trees damaged by fire.”

Water levels in many of the affected areas were very low for the season as seen in this photo from the Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary taken one month after the fire. MNA Archives.

Other species that were observed returning to or newly entering the area shortly after the fire were white-tailed deer, black bear, snowshoe hare, and gray wolf.

Beaver are common to the area, and have been able to expand their territory without human intervention in the years since the fire. At Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge, beaver activity has restored the wetlands and allowed much regrowth to occur.

Possibly the most significant result of the fire is the potential for thousands of acres of new habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler, which prefer nesting in young (5-20 years old) Jack Pine forests. These formerly endangered neotropical migrants have experienced population recovery after many years of habitat management efforts in the northern Lower Peninsula. While MNA does not have record of Kirtland’s Warbler at the Swamp Lake Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary, the existence of young Jack Pines in the nearby forest gives hope for future populations.

Not all areas are expected to see the same recovery. Fire suppression efforts resulted in a significant amount of leaf litter and dead wood accumulating in the path of the fire, allowing the fire to burn much hotter and longer (nearly a month) than the soil is able to tolerate. “In some places, the Duck Lake Fire destroyed all the organic matter and microorganisms for some depth,” wrote William Rapai, “Particularly damaging will be the loss of the mycorrhizal fungus that is critical in the lifecycle of many species. The fungus has a symbiotic relationship with plants, helping them to absorb nurtients.”

Live at Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary is abundant as seen in this photo taken from the same location as the photo above, in June 2022. Many beaver inhabit the area, as indicated by the beaver lodge at center. Photo by Andrew Bacon.

A month after the fire, early indications were that the natural communities within Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge would recover without restoration efforts. Given the sanctuary’s wetland composition, the fire has proved beneficial, thinning out the canopy and allowing other plants like bracken fern, blueberry, and leatherleaf to regenerate. MNA will continue to monitor nature’s recovery from the fire and the landscape changes through the years.

National Endangered Species Day 2022

Today, May 20, 2022, is National Endangered Species Day. Michigan is home to nearly 30 plants and animals that are listed on the federal endangered species list. MNA works to help these species recover by protecting habitat that is critical to their survival, and by educating the public about each of their crucial roles in the environment.

Learn more about one of Michigan’s rarest species below.

Poweshiek skipperling butterfly photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo.

Saving a Rare Butterfly on the Brink of Extinction

One of the rarest butterflies, the Poweshiek skipperling, is truly on the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the tall prairie grasslands and the prairie fens of several states and provinces in the upper Midwest, the tiny butterfly is now found only in a handful of sites in Manitoba and northern Oakland County, including an MNA nature sanctuary. Loss of habitat and other factors contributed to a decades-long—and now a relatively recent and rapid—population decline that has scientists scratching their heads and worried about what their disappearance may mean for other pollinators.

The globally endangered Poweshiek is now so rare that only 100 individual butterflies were counted in a 2021 census. Recovery plans—aided by an international partnership that includes MNA—call for captive breeding efforts to headstart individuals and increase survival to adulthood in order to build a reserve population that can be reintroduced to the wild. The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, and Michigan State University’s Haddad Lab are specifically collaborating within the Poweshiek Skipperling International Partnership to annually produce more individuals for wild releases in 2022 and beyond in what is known as ex situ or “offsite” conservation.

Ensuring genetic diversity in a managed breeding population is always a concern, especially when wild populations are so low. All of the Poweshiek that are being bred through this partnership in the United States were collected from sites in northern Oakland County. As the MNA sanctuary has been isolated from those sites, a female collected with MNA’s permission from our sanctuary is making significant genetic contributions to the whole—a critical component of species survival.

Dave Pavlik from the MSU Haddad Lab moves a Poweshiek skipperling caterpillar to its host plant at the John Ball Zoo hoop house, where the captive rearing program takes place. Photo by Lauren Ross.

“The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo, and MSU Haddad Lab sincerely appreciate the permissions granted by the Michigan Nature Association to help improve the prospects for Poweshiek skipperling conservation and recovery,” says Dr. Erik Runquist, Conservation Biologist, Minnesota Zoo, one of the ex situ lead scientists.

Poweshiek P21.3, as she is scientifically known, or “Penny” by some, successfully laid eggs in the fall of 2021 after pairing with a male that was captive-reared at the Minnesota Zoo and before being safely returned to the sanctuary from which she was collected.

A Poweshiek skipperling pupa in captive rearing. Photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo.

Penny’s progeny will likely be used for further ex situ cross-breeding to enhance genetic diversity. But her story informs the path forward. To keep the Poweshiek from going extinct requires a multi-pronged conservation intervention to rebuild the population including management efforts to sustain the remaining habitat the butterfly requires, restoring other suitable habitat, and captive breeding to ensure there is a population left to reintroduce should the wild population blink out.

MNA’s contributions, and that of Penny’s, are a critical part of bringing the Poweshiek back from the brink with lessons learned for other rare species that inhabit prairie fens.

2018 Race for Michigan Nature

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Sign up today! 
Join MNA in the
Race for Michigan Nature
series across the state

Enjoy the beautiful outdoors and run, walk, or jog
along the park trails in select cities across Michigan
with the Michigan Nature Association!

MNA’s statewide Race for Michigan Nature series
of Family Fun Runs & 5Ks stretches from Belle Isle
in Detroit to Marquette in the U.P. The races are
endorsed by the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness,
Health and Sports and qualify for the Pure Michigan Challenge.

The Family Fun Runs & 5Ks will promote efforts to
preserve habitat for threatened and endangered
species throughout Michigan.

Register Today

Bring the whole family! The Kids Fun Run will
be a 1 mile race 30 minutes prior to the 5K.

Kids 1 Mile Fun Run: $10
5K Run/Walk: Early registration is just $25 ($30 day-of).

Participants will receive a
commemorative Run t-shirt,
a finisher medal, and a
Discover Michigan Nature drawstring bag!
Prizes for the top male and female runners.

Volunteers are also needed!
We’re looking for energetic individuals and organizations
to provide great customer service to our 5K participants.
Interested in helping with registration, monitoring along
the course, or handing out medals?
We have a spot for everyone!

If you have any questions please call Jess at
866-223-2231 or email her at jfoxen@michigannature.org.

We hope to see you there!

Find a race in your area!

Grand Rapids
​Karner Blue Butterfly Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, May 20
Millennium Park
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Kalamazoo
Monarch March Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, June 9
Mayor’s Riverfront Park – Kalamazoo River Valley Trail
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Rochester
Rattlesnake Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, June 30
Rochester Municipal Park – Paint Creek Trail
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Detroit
Sturgeon Sprint Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, August 12
Belle Isle Park
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Marquette
Moose on the Loose Family Fun Run & 5K
Saturday, August 25
Presque Isle Park
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Ann Arbor
Turtle Trot Family Fun Run & 5K
Sunday, September 16
Gallup Park
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