The Extinction of Meaning

What good is an endangered butterfly if it doesn’t tweet or turn a profit?

Bryan Pfeiffer

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Photos: Bryan Pfeiffer

One of the most imperiled animals in North America isn’t big and furry like a polar bear. It has neither the charisma of an ivory-billed woodpecker nor the elegance of a prairie fringed orchid. It has incited no eco-wars like those over the gray wolf or the spotted owl. It is not even a tool in the machinery now gearing up to weaken the Endangered Species Act. No, this endangered animal is only a butterfly named Poweshiek skipperling.

Saffron-yellow with frosty-white rays, and no bigger than your thumbnail, the skipperling once flew in untold numbers across prairies from Michigan to Manitoba. Even so, few Americans or Canadians have ever heard of it, let alone seen it. And even though it is already protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Poweshiek skipperling is so imperiled that many of us who have watched it dance across the grasslands probably won’t have the chance to say goodbye.

I first met the skipperling in southern Michigan on July 13, 2003. Rather than float or flutter from plant to plant, skipperlings dart and skip. And when one alighted on a flower bud in a wet prairie fen, I dropped to my belly and snapped a quick photo. Since then the Poweshiek skipperling has vanished from more than 90 percent of its known sites. It may become the first species that I have seen in the wild to go extinct before I do.

What worries me is that, in the end, I suspect few among us will mourn the passing of a butterfly.

So why should we save the skipperling? Those of us who love wildlife and wild places resort to some well-worn arguments in defense of the Endangered Species Act and other laws that are supposed to protect whatever swims, crawls, hops, slithers, walks, grows, or just sits there decaying among us: that rare plants might service humanity as medicine; that some of these animals are “canaries in the coal mines” alerting us to bigger problems in nature; or that imperiled species are part of our national heritage, no less sacred than the Liberty Bell or Old Faithful. All worthy assertions, all anthropocentric, and all too often failures in the new littered landscape of public discourse.

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Bryan Pfeiffer

Biologist, writer and boy explorer chasing birds, insects, plants and other wild ideas. Faculty at University of Vermont. www.bryanpfeiffer.com