Long Live the Dakota Skippers
In his book Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds
Trevor Herriot paints a grim word picture of what has happened to the Canadian prairies since “civilization” moved in 130 years or so ago. Once a vast, open expanse of tall grasses subtle in color and scintillating in fragrance, with birdsong so prevalent that, in the words of a botanist in 1880, it created “a canopy of sound”, the prairies are now an industrialized farming monoculture.
Because the native tall-grass prairie has been reduced to one-half of one percent of what it was before settlement, grassland birds are declining faster than any other species. Birds with odd names like Sprague’s Pipits, Dickcissels, and Loggerhead Shrikes as well as Burrowing Owls, Swainson’s Hawks, Horned Larks, Meadowlarks and ten other species that, in Herriot’s words “can’t tolerate trees or cropland.”
You’d think with these alarming statistics, Herriot would be discouraged or angry.
Instead, he feels that “Fighting against the odds is a cultural obligation” for prairie people. “Destroying the natural prairie hasn’t completely erased its influence on our souls. Enormity of sky and expansiveness of landscape make us all into the little guy who won’t give up no matter how bad the odds.” He’s right: tenaciousness is a cultural imperative here.
I thought of these words when I recently met a graduate student who is doing research on the Dakota Skipper, a very modest little butterfly that takes its name from its fast, slow, “skipping” flight.
The Dakota Skipper favors northern alkaline tall-grass prairie (found in the Dakotas), a habitat that is rapidly disappearing. This skipper is still found in isolated areas of southern and interlake Manitoba, but you could easily miss it. What’s more, it’s recorded here only from 23 June to 14 July.
With a wingspan of at most an inch and a quarter and unspectacular coloration (both sexes are grey-brown below; males are pale yellowish orange above while females are variable, from a grey-buff to brown above), this butterfly seems hardly worthy of study. If they were to disappear completely tomorrow, we would have trouble detecting any significant ecological or economic consequences.
That’s what makes Christa Rigney’s study so heartening.
Jana Johnson, a California lepidopterist, once said that “butterflies are hope.”
Christa’s study is surely a triumph of hope over a world that seems determined to squelch it. We need more Trevor Herriots and Christa Rigneys!