New John Ball Zoo facility to help save endangered butterfly

The Poweshiek skipperling is a critically endangered species. Conservationists estimate there are only a few hundred left in the wild. (Courtesy MSU Extension)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, the Haddad Lab at Michigan State University and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service joined forces Wednesday to cut the ribbon on a new breeding facility to try to save a critically endangered butterfly.

The zoo now holds two hoop houses dedicated to the Poweshiek skipperling. The butterflies were once found in the prairielands across most of the Midwest. However, over the last 20 years, the insect has virtually disappeared, now only found in the wild in a few stretches of land in southeastern Michigan and one site in Manitoba, Canada.

Conservationists estimate there are only a few hundred left in the wild.

“To put that in perspective, there are about 10 times as many giant pandas,” Bill Flanagan, John Ball Zoo’s conservation manager, said in a release.

The Poweshiek skipperling was added to the Endangered Species List in 2014. In 2019, MSU’s Haddad Lab invited the John Ball Zoo to join the fight. Now, the lab and the Fish & Wildlife Service are working with three zoos to house breeding programs to rebuild the skipperling population, including the Minnesota Zoo and the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.

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Dave Pavlik, a research assistant with MSU’s Haddad Lab, said researchers were able to gather enough caterpillars to create an insurance population, a group that they could remove from the wild to help the skipperlings repopulate.

“There may be more caterpillars in the breeding program now than in the wild,” Pavlik said. “That will mean huge increases in the number of butterflies available to release in the wild and breed in captivity.”

Conservationists believe habitat loss and pesticides have made the biggest impact on the butterflies, but threats triggered by climate change, pathogens and the skipperling’s genetic pool also have played a part.

The John Ball Zoo and Minnesota Zoo have more than 200 caterpillars in their care. Those caterpillars are being introduced to their hoop houses in the coming days. If all goes according to plan and the caterpillars can mature into butterflies, Pavlik estimates the program could release an additional 100 skipperlings back into the wild this summer.