Winged Wisconsin wildlife wants you

Endangered and threatened species in Wisconsin experience highs and lows


Perrenoud 2019

Though Wisconsin has several endangered or threatened species and suffers invasive aquatic species, bats and butterflies are the hot topic at Beaver Creek Reserve in Fall Creek.

Every summer in Wisconsin, a journey begins in little beds of milkweed scattered throughout the native countryside. Over the next few months, six generations of monarch butterflies will live and die as their lineage is carried onward through Texas, finally resting just west of Mexico City.

The monarch is the only North American species of butterfly that migrates such a great distance and can only reproduce when provided with milkweed along its natural 1200-mile route. This delicate situation saw monarch numbers dwindle to the point of endangerment over the past decades, but those numbers are now climbing back up.

Though the monarch population is rebounding, other winged species in the state are not faring as well. Bat populations in species like the northern long-eared have reached crisis levels since the introduction of white-nose syndrome to American ecosystems in 2006.

“Here we raise monarchs from the egg,” said Brianne Markin, the Beaver Creek Reserve marketing and development coordinator. “Then the other specific species that we work on that would be considered endangered in Wisconsin, or at least of concern, would be bats.”

Markin has been with Beaver Creek for almost four years and is fascinated by the little critters she works with.

“What I think is super crazy is the ones that hatch all the rest of the year are floating around and they do their thing,” Markin said. “The second that last group hatches, they’re immediately south-facing.”

The Wise Nature Center and Civilian Science Center of Beaver Creek Reserve in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, host programs in service of butterflies and bats respectively. Both entities rely strongly on the help of volunteers, as resources for wildlife preservation are often financially limited.

Jim Schwiebert is a naturalist who had little knowledge of butterflies when he was hired on to be Beaver Creek’s house curator in 2007. He said he now does all he can to spread the knowledge he has gained about the unique creature that is the monarch.


I think the most exciting part of raising butterflies is just turning people on to the miracle that is a butterfly,” Schwiebert said. “When you look at their lifecycle, the amazing transformations that occur throughout their lifecycle and in a very short span of time, the whole thing is just amazing.”


There are, however, challenging aspects in raising an insect from egg to adulthood. Schwiebert is grateful that his predecessors who ran the house since it opened 2000 left him with a healthy supply of eager volunteers.


“Probably the biggest challenge in raising butterflies is that it is a very labor-intensive program,” Schwiebert said. “The caterpillars need to be fed every day, no exceptions. Containers for raising them need to be sanitized every day. Eggs need to be procured to maintain the lab population.”


Scientists like Schwiebert are well aware of what brought on challenges for the monarch. He said it frustrates and saddens him to see the culture that has developed around landscaping across the country. Habitat loss resulting from the creation of lawns impacts more species than just the monarch he said.


“Grass is worthless,” Schwiebert said. “We can’t eat it, spend billions of dollars to grow it, spend more billions of dollars to eradicate every plant but grass in our pursuit of a perfect monoculture.”


Markin is also a firm believer in maintaining native grassland plants, and she incorporates naturally occurring plants from the state into her own lawn and garden.


She and Schwiebert alike, said that spreading awareness on these issues is the most effective way to combat them. The reserves Citizen Science Center was developed just for that, to spread awareness and well as educate people on ways they can help the environment.


“Our Citizen Science Center is pretty much the only one of its kind in Wisconsin,” said Markin. “We direct a lot of citizen science projects.”

Schwiebert recently had a woman deliver him about 50 monarch caterpillar eggs that she found in a patch of milkweed outside of her home. Community members taking simple steps like this is what he said will make the difference in preserving the species.


“We need to grow a culture of people who care about their environment and what is supposed to be growing there,” Schwiebert said. “I’m talking about native plants and grasses that don’t get mowed. But even, at a grass-roots level, if we can just get people to plant even relatively small wildflower or native plantings we can do much to help native pollinators and that includes butterflies.”


The staff also made a few simple suggestions on how to help the cause. Things as simple as planting native plants, not mowing your ditches, turning off outdoor night lights or at least facing them downward, can help greatly in the long run.


According to Schwiebert, monarch populations have recently risen above their lowest point, which was in 1996, and saw another spike in population last year. However, the bats aren’t faring as well as the butterflies.


“I know there’s certain areas in Wisconsin where they’ve had 90 percent reduction in species over the last couple of years,” Markin said. “It (white-nose syndrome) causes the bats metabolism to speed up. And so, they’re waking up in midwinter hungry, there’s no food, and basically they starve to death.”


AJ Leiden is Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator at the Citizen Science Center and is also in charge of its acoustic bat monitoring program. He teaches the average citizen the scientific process and gets them familiar with the equipment necessary to track and record bat populations.

“So we’ve got this old device, it’s called an Anabat,” Leiden said. “It’s just kind of this brick looking thing and there’s a microphone on the top … this can actually pick up the echolocation that bats use. We’ve got the actual distribution of their frequency of the sounds that they use to echolocate. You can actually even see them catching insects.”

Part of what the Citizen Science Center at Beaver Creek does is train people to conduct studies like this that can provide experts with information they are physically unable to collect on their own. Leiden said that knowing which bats are located where and at what density is crucial to understanding the challenges a syndrome like white-nose truly presents.

“A lot of the information does come from having volunteers and citizen scientists get out and collect that information,” said Leiden. “Because with a lot of natural resources work it is a matter of there’s just too much to do at any given point for professionals.”

Megan Giefer, Beaver Creek’s newest naturalist, recently worked with bats infected with the fungus at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. Though white-nose syndrome can contaminate several bat species, Giefer said the long-eared bat was hit the hardest.

“At our cave and actually all kinds of southern regions — so even Crystal Cave and Cave of the Mounds — they all have lost 90 percent of the bats,” said Giefer. “That is actually confirmed now.”

Giefer said that unfortunately once the bats are affected there is little to be done. Scientists have tried various solutions including inoculating the bats and spraying caves. Spraying is frowned upon though because of no existing research on how this method could damage cave formations long-term.

“It takes forever for these formations to grow and no one really knows what really affects them because we’re only here for a little bit of time,” said Giefer. “An inch only can grow every 100 years.”

After years of researching the cause of white-nose syndrome it was confirmed the fungus was brought over from Europe by cavers spelunking in New York. Their gear was not properly cleansed and over the last thirteen years the fungus has spread throughout most of the Midwest and is now present in Washington state. Year by year progress of the disease can be observed here at

Much of the staff at Beaver Creek agrees that education and communication are the best tools for stopping this epidemic.

“The best thing is communication, so just tell others about it,” said Giefer. “Because the more you educate others about it, the more of an impact it will have on their lives that they can tell others. And then it will just keep passing on and passing on.”

Giefer said that in science sometimes one need negatives to figure out the positive. Though the bat crisis is concerning, Leiden said the situation is not hopeless.

“I think nature is also pretty resilient,” Leiden said. “A lot of bats will probably not make out so well, but the few that do will maybe in the long-term be able to bounce back. Maybe there will be some kind of adaptation amongst bats that sees an increase in their population.”

There also may be a solution in the making that Citizen Science Center Director, Jeanette Kelly recently caught wind of and spread the news to her staff. Studies using sudden bursts of ultra-violet light have generated positive results in suppressing the fungus, but additional research still needs to occur. Kelly also echoed the message of education and communication as the main forces to stop white-nose.

“You can’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know,” said Kelly.

Kelly is a bird expert in her own right and does not directly work with the bat or butterfly population in her career. Ecosystems are delicate however and as the disease spreads westward she has concerns for larger birds of prey in western states that primarily feed on bats.

At the end of the day there is still much research to be done on how to save the state’s bat population. For now, staff members at Beaver Creek like their Markin said they do all they can to spread awareness and to teach citizens the proper way to take care of threatened species and the Earth in turn.  

“I really like the slogan lately that I’ve seen: ‘There’s no planet B,’” Markin said. “I mean that this is the planet we have and it’s important that we take care of it and that we realize that what we do has an impact.”