Ava Mandoli is a Dow Jones News Fund intern.
Dennis Schlicht has been chasing butterflies for 50 years. Species he used to see everywhere — including the Iowa skipper, a yellow-orange, stamp-sized butterfly — are nowhere to be seen today.
The skipper’s only habitat is native prairie, an ecosystem that has been almost entirely destroyed in the U.S. because of agricultural and urban development. Corn and soybean crops now dominate the once-diverse prairie landscape.
Habitat destruction and pesticides are two main threats agriculture poses to prairie dwellers. Because of these threats, a conservation group is requesting the federal government protect the Iowa skipper.
The health and size of prairies also impact farmers and ranchers. Research shows that having native plants increases the number of pollinators around. Plant diversity also benefits livestock nutrition.
The Iowa skipper may be a canary in the coal mine for other prairie obligate species – species that only live in prairies – facing the same threats, said Schlicht, a teacher and co-author of “The Butterflies of Iowa.”
“If we lost half of the obligate butterflies, then we probably lost half of the obligate insects,” he said.
The Iowa skipper’s story highlights how sustaining the land is important for both wildlife and farmers.
The Center for Food Safety, a national nonprofit focused on creating environmentally safe food systems, petitioned the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in March to list the Iowa skipper under the Endangered Species Act.
The butterfly is “a symbol of the impacts that industrial agriculture has on our wildlife and especially on insects and other invertebrates,” Center for Food Safety staff attorney and petition author Jenny Loda said.
Officials have not yet determined if the Iowa skipper will be listed under the ESA. That could take months or years. Meanwhile, the Iowa skipper’s habitat remains one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund, a nonprofit conservation group.
In the Great Plains, an area spanning from Montana to Texas, more than 245 million acres have been converted into row crop agriculture as of 2020, according to the most recent available data in the WWF 2022 Plowprint Report. That’s an area nearly five times the size of Kansas.
To Tim Youngquist, an agriculture specialist for Iowa State University, the loss of biodiversity in Iowa is all the more noticeable because he grew up on a farm that has been in his family for more than a century.
“I can remember riding the bus to school and there being wetland areas when I was a child back in the early ’90s,” he said. “Those are gone. The last little bits of those kinds of pockets of diversity have been drained and the trees have been bulldozed out.”
Voluntary initiatives involving private landowners, such as the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, are a big part of conservation efforts in the Midwest.
Through the CRP, the federal government pays landowners to take environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health instead.
Courtney Briggs, senior director of government affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said she has heard from members that getting through the CRP approval process can be difficult and time-intensive.
“We do support the focus of conservation dollars being placed on environmentally sensitive lands and keeping prime farmland in production,” Briggs said.
The vast majority of farmers and ranchers want to be good stewards of the land, said Colin Berg, with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. But he acknowledged the challenges of implementing new practices.
“No matter what they do, it comes at a cost to them, either in their pocketbook or their time,” Berg said. “They’re using their tractor. They’re using their equipment. They’re using their time that they could be doing something else that’s actually putting dollars in their back pocket or helping them break even.”
Still, landowners submitted a record-setting 4.6 million acres for consideration in the Grasslands CRP in 2023, demonstrating growing interest in the program. The USDA accepted nearly 2.7 million acres. CRP enrollment limits prevented them from accepting more.
To Berg, successful conservation efforts start with environmentalists and landowners.
“When they start actually communicating with each other, I find out they’re really not that far off,” he said.
Prairie conservation and agriculture may seem incompatible, but viewing them as opposites might not be in farmers’ or prairie dwellers’ best interests, said Matthew O’Neal, a pollinator research lead for Iowa State’s Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project.
Farmers could reduce sediment movement off crop fields and soil nutrient loss by multiple times over strategically by converting 10% of their cropland to prairie strips, STRIPS researchers found. Increasing the amount of habitat for insects is an added benefit.
Prairie strips are like a Big Mac, O’Neal said. The meat is prairie strips’ ability to combat sediment and nutrient loss from fields. The extra toppings include better water quality and more diverse and increased total pollinators.
“It’s a way of getting multiple functions out of one practice, which is increasingly what we need from agriculture,” O’Neal said.
Preserving native plants can also help ranchers because livestock benefit from grazing on a variety of vegetation, Berg said. Prairies are home to as many as 60 types of grass and 300 species of flowers and broad-leaved flowering plants called forbs, according to the National Parks Service.
“Monoculture is not good for wildlife species, and in a lot of cases for livestock themselves,” Berg said.
Jessica Petersen, an invertebrate ecologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said she is concerned for prairies’ health but also sees signs of hope.
“I think our prairies are simultaneously fragile and resilient,” Petersen said. “A lot of these plants that are living in the prairies are perhaps very old… These are our rainforests.”
Lackluster pesticide protections
The most direct chemical threat to Iowa skippers and other insects are insecticides, a particular type of pesticide. They are intended to harm insects by interfering with the nervous system, the CFS petition states.
The U.S. sprayed more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides in 2021, according to most recent data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.
Pesticides also can unintentionally affect the Iowa skipper’s habitat. Aerially sprayed pesticides can drift to untargeted lands, affecting which plants the skipper is able to collect nectar from or lay eggs on, according to the petition.
For years, the EPA has approved new pesticides without evaluating how they might impact listed plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act.
“We and other organizations have been pushing on that, challenging that, in court,” Loda said.
In a January 2022 press release, the EPA promised to do better at studying pesticide impacts before approving them, both to protect at-risk species and to reduce “resource-intensive litigation against EPA.”
Part of a broader issue
Agriculture is also not the only threat to prairies: so is the growth of invasive trees. One way to control it is through prescribed burns.
At the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Berg said they try to make this practice more approachable to landowners by connecting them with landowner-led burn associations.
“I’ve done multiple burns on my property, but I couldn’t do them without adjoining landowners coming and helping me,” Berg said.
Managing the growth of invasive trees safeguards food sources for livestock and ranchers’ livelihoods, according to a USDA Working Lands for Wildlife report.
Fires are necessary to prevent trees from taking over grasslands, but must be done in moderation. Burns that are too large or frequent can threaten species like the Iowa skipper by burning plants that host larvae, according to the CFS petition.
In past decades, Iowa skippers used to be able to recolonize recently burned prairies by coming from nearby habitats, according to Ray Moranz, an ecologist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Now, there usually isn’t any other habitat nearby.
“We have to manage these prairies properly. We need more fire but we need to do it in a way that’s not wiping out entire populations,” Moranz said.
One or two missing nodes in an ecosystem may not cause it to collapse, but the more species that go extinct, the more fragile that interconnected system becomes, said butterfly researcher Schlicht.
“Can you save the whole prairie if you lose the parts?” he asked.
The long road to listing in the Endangered Species Act
Passed by Congress in 1973, the Endangered Species Act gives species the strongest protections the government can offer. The law requires federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize, fund or carry out are “not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species” or destroy their habitats.
However, the road to approval is long. After an initial 90-day review to see if there is enough data on a species for a potential listing, there is a year-long information-gathering period to confirm that a listing is warranted.
As of July 28, there are 55 species in line that have yet to pass the first step in the review process.
Because there are so many petitions, only the most urgently imperiled species actually end up getting listed, according to Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
The rest of the species are “warranted but precluded” and are reconsidered for listing annually. The monarch butterfly has been one such precluded species since 2020: while it is eligible for listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided more critically endangered species should be listed first.
Citations & References:
Interview with Jenny Loda, CFS, June 27, 2023
Interview with Matthew O’Neal, Iowa State University professor in the department of plant pathology, entomology and microbiology, June 28, 2023
Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips, Iowa State University
A Complex Prairie Ecosystem: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, U.S. National Park Service
Interview with Ray Moranz, Xerces Society, July 3, 2023
Interview with Jessica Petersen, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, July 7, 2023
Interview with Tim Youngquist, Iowa State University, June 29, 2023
2017 National Resources Inventory Summary Report, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
“Prairie strips help honey bees and wild pollinators,” STRIPS publication, April 2021
Interview with Karen Oberhauser, University of Wisconsin-Madison, June 29, 2023
Woody Plant Encroachment in Grasslands, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes
2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Interview with Dennis Schlicht, George Washington High School teacher and butterfly researcher, July 5, 2023
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