|The Poweshiek Skipper Project|
|In the early 1800s, had you visited
Iowa and the rest of the upper Midwest
you would have seen a landscape that was vastly different from what you
would find today. You would see forests, especially along the
banks of rivers. You would see shallow lakes and wetlands,
particularly in the northern parts. And you would see vast
stretches of prairie.
Now when we talk of prairie, we are often referring to a type of a landscape--a flat area, mostly devoid of trees. Often we refer to the acres of row crops--corn and beans mostly--as prairie. But the prairie of the 1800s was vastly different than what you see now. It was a functioning ecosystem with few or no trees. You could easily find an area where no tree was in site. The prairie had several hundred different species of plants, a greater percentage of them flowering.
People who visited the prairie landscape sometimes compared it to the ocean. And it was like the ocean. An ocean with waves of flowers.
And waves of butterflies.
There were more butterflies back then than there are now. How many more would be hard to say. Three times as many? Ten times as many? A hundred times as many?
Each year in the first days of summer a small butterfly, dark brown or black from above and light brown with white rays below would appear. It was Oarisma poweshiek, the Poweshiek skipper. How many were there? Tens of thousands at a minimum. Probably more in the range of hundreds of thousands or millions.
They drank nectar from the flowers along hillsides and chased each other in the sunlight. They lived a few weeks as adults, then mated and died.
Had you lived in the prairies during this time, you might have barely noticed this butterfly. Like the wildflowers they peak in beauty for a short time, then something else replaces it for an equally short time.
By the 1830s settlers of European heritage were moving into the areas that became Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. It was an incremental but fairly rapid process. The prairie was plowed at a very fast pace.
By 1870 the prairie was starting to disappear. Henry Parker went to a " grassy prairie slope at Grinnell, Iowa" and collected thirty three specimens. ( If you read the History of the Butterfly section you may see that there is more to the story than that). Still, the butterfly was abundant in the fracturing prairie areas.
Some butterfly species were able to adapt to habitats that were no longer like the prairies--they lived in the weeds that existed in row crop fields, or on the crops themselves, or on the clovers and alfalfa imported from Europe. Others, like O. poweshiek, were prairie obligates and could only survive in the small patches of prairie habitat that remained.
The last record of this butterfly from Poweshiek County, Iowa was from 1917.
The butterfly continued to hang on for a while--it was recorded in more than 20 sites in Iowa in the 1990s. Then it disappeared from the state and from Minnesota as well, early in the 2000s. It seems to be currently extirpated from those areas, hanging on only in a small portion of Canada, a couple of locations in Wisconsin, and a handfull of Michgan sites.