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Searching for the Butterflies of the Badlands

Heading out into the Badlands to photograph butterflies, I have just three things on my mind: drought, weather, and excitement!...

Every year, hundreds of adventurous volunteers get out into the backcountry and collect critical data for scientists and conservationists through the work of Adventure Scientists, the nonprofit I started after wanting my own adventures to have a greater impact for the good of our planet. Here’s a story from one of these dedicated volunteers.

By Anne Lewis

I am headed out to the Badlands this afternoon––a quick overnight to jump start the field work of observing butterflies in the wilderness for the Adventure Scientists Pollinators project. I feel fortunate to live near enough to make weekend jaunts. I will also be keeping a field journal on Open Explorer to document my expeditions.

I have several things on my mind.

1. Drought. Last year, the Badlands were in deep drought. The September landscape which should have looked faded and dry was as gray and dead as November’s. The spring rains for this year were good. In fact the last time I was there there was 2 inches of rain in one night. (That was fun.) The most recent report from the US Drought Monitor reports the Badlands are not even abnormally dry so I am hopeful that I will find some nice plants and therefore butterflies as plains plants are adapted to drought so they thrive when the moisture is even middling. I did find a variegated fritillary butterfly on a rubber rabbitbrush in early September of last year (photo below). You have to be pretty tough to live on the plains.

A variegated fritillary butterfly alights on a rubber rabbitbrush. Photo by Anne Lewis

2. Weather. The forecast for Saturday is for smoky (distant wildfires) and thunderstorms, mainly later. I have a deep respect for the Badlands because of bison, rattlesnakes, and lightning. The grasslands are an ecosystem managed by fire and fire on the prairie is caused by lightning. I’ve been caught once in a thunderstorm on the plains and that was once too often. My plan is to be homeward bound when the storms move in as I need to be back home by later Saturday afternoon.

3. Excitement! Not everyone finds the idea of wandering around the grasslands taking pictures of flowers hoping to find a variegated fritillary exciting. But that’s my geek and I’m grateful to Adventure Scientists for me giving me an outlet.

Photographing wildflowers in the Badlands. Photo by Claire Trainer

There are still volunteer spots available for the Pollinators and Timber projects, though the season is wrapping up, so if you want to get in, sign up soon!

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Meet the Author

Gregg Treinish
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at adventurescientists.org/field-notes. Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.