US considers endangered status for butterfly found in Michigan

Nov 12, 2013 by Keith Matheny

It's a small, brown butterfly native to Michigan that's so scarce, two of the state's leading butterfly-lovers have never encountered one.

"I've been butterflying 13 years, and I've never seen one that I know of," said Brenda Dziedzic of Westland, a co-founder and past president of SEMBA, the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association, a nonprofit for enthusiasts.

"I haven't - I'm not sure any of the members have," said Carolyn Sohoza of Allen Park, another SEMBA co-founder.

The Poweshiek skipperling butterfly once fluttered in tall-grass plains across many U.S. states. Now, with almost all of its habitat gone, it's only found in a few places, including isolated fens - low, marshy, frequently flooded areas - in Michigan.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the Poweshiek skipperling as an endangered species and preserve areas for it and another threatened butterfly found outside of Michigan, the Dakota skipper.

Georgia Parham, spokeswoman for the agency, said population numbers for the Poweshiek skipperling are hard to come by. But "now we can only find it in Wisconsin, Michigan and Manitoba. That tells us there is something hugely wrong with the population of these butterflies," she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a public meeting Wednesday in Holly, Mich., to present information and answer questions about the proposed butterfly protections.

The protection effort would include 1,727 acres of critical habitat designated in Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw, Lenawee, Jackson and Hillsdale counties.

About 1,245 acres of that total is on private land, but the designation would place no limitations on the use of those properties unless the owner sought a federal permit or grant, Parham said.

Then, as with the public lands sought as critical habitat, the landowner would be required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that activities did not affect the Poweshiek skipperling, she said.

The butterfly has a wing span of about an inch. It's dark brown with light orange along its wing margins and has a lighter orange head. The undersides of its wings, which can be seen when it is at rest, have prominent white veins that make the wings look striped.

Unlike more common Monarch butterflies that migrate to warmer climates in the winter, the Poweshiek skipperling spends its winters in caterpillar form on the ground in Michigan, emerging in the spring and developing into an adult butterfly by summer, Parham said. Adults live only one to two weeks, and mate and lay eggs during that brief window.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental organization, settled a lawsuit with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 in which the federal agency agreed to make decisions on the threatened or endangered status of a backlog of 757 species, including the Poweshiek skipperling.

"These little butterflies aren't things we would think about very much," said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist for the center. "But they are part of the biological ecosystem. By protecting them, we protect other plant and animal species on the plains where they live."

Only 4 percent of the original, tall-grass prairie in the U.S. remains, Parham said. The endangerment of the Poweshiek skipperling "is representative of a vanishing part of habitat that used to be a big part of the landscape," she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will now seek scientific and public opinions on its proposal, a process that should culminate with a final listing rule in about a year, Curry said.

Written comments will be accepted until Dec. 23 at www.regulations.gov. Search for "Poweshiek skipperling."

"Some people may just think that it's one little butterfly," Dziedzic said. "But each species that's out there plays an important role in the ecosystem. It's just important that we try to keep the species that evolved here."

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