North Dakota biologist trying to help butterflies

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Farm Forum

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Ron Royer feels like he’s seeing an old friend when he spots a Dakota skipper in places where this small, hardy butterfly used to thrive.

Royer, a professor at Minot State University, conducts field studies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, looking for butterflies and other species. His data helps support an upcoming decision whether the skipper should be a candidate under the Endangered Species Act.

“I am the butterfly man,” he said.

This past summer, in those high summer weeks when the skipper should be out and about in greatest numbers, he counted fewer than he ever has since starting in the early 1990s.

On his walks through the prairie and range grasses where he knows they live, he saw three to four Dakota skippers per hour. He compares that to the 18 per hour he sighted back in the mid-’90s, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

“Things are looking pretty bleak here,” Royer said.

Loss of habitat is one problem; so are heavy wet conditions.

Interestingly, McKenzie County was the hot spot where he counted more than anywhere else, in an area far west near Charlson and toward New Town.

Given the intense oil development, one would think, “There’s no way on Earth, no way in the world they would survive,” he said. “But I don’t know if oil activity, if managed intelligently, is that much of a problem.”

He said the Dakota skipper will never be to the oil industry what the spotted owl was to logging, partly because it isn’t found in prime oil production territory.

Invasive weed species like leafy spurge and heavy growth of silverberry and buck bush in native grass are far worse threats.

“The conversion from range and native grass to crop land is instant death,” he said

If the small creature is ever to make a comeback, he said, it will take help from many.

“We need to form an alliance with landowners, so they know what to do,” he said.

As the prairie hay meadows that the skippers so love, Royer said, “Don’t mow them too early. Some years, just leave them alone.”

He believes that it’s in North Dakota that the namesake butterfly has its best chance of survival.

“There are enough places where it’s known to exist,” he said.

Royer said the Dakota skipper belongs in the “threatened” category, not “endangered,” a more rigorous category, but he doubts that this tiny winged creature has what it takes to get into either.

“It’s so politically hot and there are so many in various industries that would do anything to keep it off. They have the power. I seriously doubt it will be listed,” Royer said.

This man, who keeps track of the most delicate, quotes Jonas Salk, the biologist who invested the polio vaccine: “… if all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years, all forms of life would flourish.”

Somewhere in between is harmony. For now, for the skipper, it’s in the battle to preserve its habitat.