Photo by Doug Backlund

Prairie Butterflies Get a Little Help in South Dakota

As the South Dakota Prairie Butterfly Garden enters its fourth growing season, the perennial plants are spreading out of their original plots, making the garden appear like a South Dakota prairie.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (SDGFP) worked together to create this outdoor learning area for adults and kids that focuses on pollinators and the plants that sustain them. It is a place where people can get outside and discover how butterflies live, growing their understanding and appreciation of the conservation efforts involved with declining wildlife. The approximate 100’ by 50’ garden is located on the grounds at the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area, a popular local recreation area within biking distance of the South Dakota State Capital. The walking trail inside the garden brings visitors inside, while a kiosk provides information on prairie butterflies and skippers, their identification, and pollinator gardening.

In the first year, volunteers and students planted the garden with seventeen types of native perennial plants (over 3,500 individual plants) and four types of annuals. The variety of plants ensures that something is in bloom from spring to fall and is a showcase of the plants needed to sustain prairie butterflies. Each spring, approximately 500 local students are given the materials to grow four types of annuals as a learning project. All of the students are also invited to the garden to plant “their” plants during the last week of school. For many, it is their first experience gardening and using garden tools.

The garden is also the site of a festival — “Little Wings on the Prairie”. A Pollinator Parade with costumed participants, pollinator crafts, and a Migration Maze are some of the highlights. The first festival in 2015 was attended by 300 participants. The second annual festival is scheduled for July 16, 2016. Partners in the festival include USFWS, SDGFP, USFS Fort Pierre National Grasslands, Discovery Center, Pheasants Forever, and South Dakota State University Extension.

The garden has also hosted Master Gardeners from across the state. Fifty participants toured the garden and left with small packets of swamp and common milkweed seed, information, and data sheets. They will try different growing methods and record, which ones work best. They will also track with butterflies they see on their datasheets.

Not only is the garden a site for education and outreach, it is a site for monitoring pollinators. Monarch butterflies are tagged in the garden — a total of 21 in 2014 and 35 in 2015. Rare species have also been spotted in the garden including the Hunt’s bumblebee, which is usually found to the west of Pierre.

This small space will not make up for declining grassland habitat critical for prairie butterflies, but the garden can produce a spark that will encourage people to conserve and protect those special areas our pollinators need and help connect people with nature.

Funding for this garden was provided by the USFWS National Conservation Training Center – Connecting People with Nature – Let’s Go Outside Fund. Additionally, SDGFP Division of Parks and Recreation provided development funds for an irrigation system. A butterfly activity guide was written by a local teacher with support from a Wildlife Diversity Program Small Grant. The South Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society provided funding for a protective deer fence. Missouri Breaks Audubon Society provided volunteers and funding for plant identification signs. South Dakota State University Extension staff donated their time for the planting and outreach efforts.

Educational materials and updates on the garden are available at

For more information, contact Charlene Bessken, USFWS

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