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Endangered butterflies
Jul 19, 2013

 

Most people would assume that insects are quite resilient and able to survive constant human manipulations of the environment. But that’s far from the case, with the possible exception of the cockroach and other pest species, which adapt and become immune to ever-more deadly chemicals aimed to wipe them off the face of the Earth.
On the other hand, non-pests have a tougher time adapting to the continual changes fostered by mankind, especially the dramatic changes to their habitat and the use of agricultural pesticides. Massive die-offs of bees have been attributed to the pesticides used to destroy other insects that damage crops. The problem is that bees are absolutely essential to our survival. Without bees, a vast array of crops would not be pollenated and as a result the grains, vegetables and fruits that we consume on a daily basis could not be produced.
Other insects have become favourites for viewing on a hot summer day. The colourful monarch butterfly, which once numbered in the millions and was a common sight in backyard gardens fluttering about to our amusement and appreciation, is now listed as a species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada. 
In a March 18, 2013, National Geographic magazine article, it was reported that the monarch’s over-wintering habitat in Mexico has rapidly shrunk through deforestation — the monarchs hang from trees while over-wintering — and the numbers of butterflies have dropped by 60 per cent.
The population of the monarchs, which are noted for their extraordinary multi-generational migrations from Mexico to summer grounds in southern Canada, including Manitoba, plummeted “due to two main causes: widespread loss of a plant called milkweed, which their young rely on for food, and extreme climate fluctuations, including freezing temperatures and heavy rain.”
Herbicides used on tolerant genetically modified crops (GMCs), specifically corn and soybeans, have killed millions of acres of milkweed that used to grow between the rows of food crops. Destruction of the milkweed eliminates the monarchs’ food source for its larvae. 
In Manitoba, the Nature Conservatory of Canada has initiated a project with other donors to restore tall grass habitat for monarch butterflies. Working with Prairie Habitats Inc., NCC has developed a five-year plan to restore 40-hectares of habitat within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Reserve in southeast Manitoba. The site selected was once used as agricultural land, but was abandoned when it proved to be unsuitable. In the meantime, non-native species invaded the site, displacing the habitat favoured by monarch butterflies. It is projected that it will take years, if not decades, to right the damage done.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2012, the team collected more than 45 different species of local native seeds, including milkweed, by hand and mechanically using a tractor-pulled seed harvester. The help of local school children was also enlisted to harvest species that are specifically targeted by monarch butterflies. The seeds were then spread and planted into prepared soil.
This summer, the group is completing the preparations and collecting more seeds as required.
“We hope to see the monarchs use this site,” said Julie Sveinson Pelc, NCC manager of stewardship programs in Manitoba in a press release. “So far, while surveying the plant plots, no monarchs were observed. This means their numbers can only increase.”
A portion of the tall grass prairie has been preserved in the middle of Winnipeg and is a habitat where monarch butterflies can still thrive. The Living Prairie Museum, 2795 Ness Ave., will be holding its annual Monarch Butterfly Festival on Sunday, July 28, from noon to 4 p.m. The free celebration of the monarchs will feature guided hikes, a butterfly gardening workshop, discussions with scientists and entomologists, a butterfly release and other activities geared for the family. It serves as one method to educate the public on the life cycle and dangers facing the survival of the species. 
The tall grass prairie also happens to be home to a butterfly that has been described as “rarer than a panda,” and termed the “the canary in the coal mine.”
Researchers from both Canada and the United States are rushing to figure out why a small, brown and orange winged butterfly no bigger than a toonie is dying off so quickly.
Listed as an endangered species in Manitoba in 2012 and listed nationally as threatened, the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly population has dropped dramatically throughout North America, according to a press release by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In Canada, It is known to only inhabit 17 fields in southeastern Manitoba, primarily on the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Tall Grass Prairie Natural Area. In the United States, the closest population appears only in a handful of sites in Iowa and North Dakota.
“While many people think of the panda as an endangered species, the Poweshiek skipperling is rarer and right here in our backyards,” said Cary Hamel, conservation science manager with the Nature Conservancy of Canada in Manitoba. “If we don't figure out why the population is declining so quickly and why the butterfly is dying off, we’ll have lost another important species that used to live in the tall grass prairie. The cross-border collaboration with researchers will hopefully save this species from further decline or extinction.”
Researchers from the University of Winnipeg, Minnesota Zoo and University of Michigan are currently just outside of Winnipeg performing valuable research on this declining species. Since the adult butterfly is active for only two to three weeks, researchers are using this critical time to collect information on the Poweshiek skipperling’s genetics and genetic diversity to save this important critter from extinction.
“This endangered butterfly is facing the real and immediate threat of global extinction, not only in Manitoba but across its
entire range,” said Erik Runquist, a butterfly conservation biologist at the Minnesota Zoo. “No populations appear stable, so the Minnesota Zoo is partnering internationally to establish emergency conservation breeding populations at the zoo to serve as an ‘insurance policy’ against further future losses in the wild.  
“Butterflies are sensitive to environmental change,” he added, “and serve as ‘canary in the coal mine’ indicators of prairie health.  Poweshiek skipperlings are not the only prairie butterfly in steep decline, and immediate action and co-operation is needed to secure their futures.”
As many researchers have so aptly commented, if butterfly species are going extinct, it’s an indicator that we’re messing up our environment to our own detriment. And, like bees, butterflies are essential pollinators of many of our food crops.