A cross-border race is on in southern Manitoba to save a local species from the brink of extinction. But the focus of all the effort and attention is probably smaller -- and uglier -- than one might think.
The poweshiek skipperling is about the size of a toonie and, with its brown colour, could be mistaken for a moth. There are an estimated 200 skipperlings in Canada and about 1,500 worldwide, Erik Runquist, a butterfly conservation biologist at the Minnesota Zoo, said. While that number may seem high, for an insect it's "still almost zero," Runquist said.
The skipperling is native to the grass prairies in southeastern Manitoba, as well as Iowa and Michigan, explained Cary Hamel, the conservation science manager with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
'It's really a canary in the coal mine. Because we see this species declining, it's kind of an indicator to us that the overall health of our native prairie area is declining'
The extinction of the butterfly could have far-reaching effects on the ecosystem, but Hamel said researchers are unsure of what exactly those effects are. What they do know is the butterfly is an important pollinator and an indicator of change in its environment.
"It's really a canary in the coal mine. Because we see this species declining, it's kind of an indicator to us that the overall health of our native prairie area is declining," Hamel said.
Whatever is causing the population to decline is not obvious to researchers, Runquist said. The past year's droughts and harsh winter certainly didn't help the skipperling regain any numbers, Runquist said.
"The heat and drought with this year's extended cold and snow really did a one-two on them, and that's a problem for endangered species. They're being kicked while they're down," he said.
The skipperling only spends about two to three weeks in its adult form. That means researchers are spending as much time as possible during these weeks looking at how to save the butterfly from extinction.
Different teams from the University of Winnipeg, the NCC and the University of Michigan will look at different parts of the skipperling's environment to see if they can unravel the story behind the species' decline and prevent it from dying out.
In addition to the those efforts, the Minnesota Zoo will start a captive program for the butterfly as a sort of safety net, Runquist said.
Eventually, if possible, the captive butterflies could be released back into the wild.
"If we have a large enough breeding population that's stable and we've got good genetic diversity... we would consider that, but we're years away from that," he said.
For Hamel, the preservation of the butterfly is crucial because of how local it is.
"We think of endangered species... mostly as a problem of somewhere away. Maybe it's an ocean problem or a tropic problem. But this is a species that's 100 kilometres away from Winnipeg. It's essentially in our backyard," he said.