Great Plains Zoo Unveils Master Plan


The Great Plains Zoo and Butterfly House & Aquarium (GPZ/BHA) will present a transformative 15-year vision for the zoo campus at the city council informational meeting at 3 pm on March 26.

When GPZ/BHA merged in 2023, plans were announced to operate as one organization on one campus. This campus-wide master plan brings this vision to life with a world-class aquarium in the short-term, while looking ahead to address aging animal habitats and traffic flow issues, as well as creating a sustainable business model. This will be a one-stop, year-round immersive nature experience, blending elements of land, sea, and sky.

“Our vibrant community deserves an accessible, modern zoo and aquarium that is uniquely Sioux Falls,” said CEO Becky Dewitz. “This integrated master plan and business strategy provides a road map for our development with enhanced habitats for our animals – as well as quality educational experiences for our guests. As an AZA-accredited zoo, animal well-being and conservation are cornerstones of our mission to save species and wild spaces.”

Master planning kicked off in early 2023 with the partnership and expertise of zoo and aquarium staff, the Sioux Falls Parks Department, and consultants at Canopy Strategic Partners and CLR Design.

Prior to the GPZ/BHA merger, testing of a zoo/aquarium model with a proforma analysis and economic impact study showed that this idea is not only financially sound, but transformative. Early analysis indicates attendance could grow from 250,000 to 400,000 annual visitors, provided the full campus is put to its best use.

During phase one of the master plan, a new education center will be built adjacent to Sherman Park. This first step is necessary to ensure ZooCamps and classes can continue during future construction. It will also allow for expanded class and camp offerings.

Construction will then begin on the zoo’s administrative building. This is the most accessible structure for year-round use on the zoo’s campus. It will be home to a world-class aquarium, featuring diverse aquatic species, including rays, sharks, corals, and a jellyfish gallery. A large rainforest ecosystem, teeming with butterflies, lush plant life, and tropical wildlife will sit adjacent to the aquarium.

Beyond phase one, GPZ/BHA will turn to the zoo’s campus, which will undergo a full transformation. The master plan includes a new restaurant with seating that looks out on grazing giraffes and bongos in an enhanced, naturalistic habitat. Plus, we can look forward to updated habitats for penguins, red wolves, primates, and flamingos – and a new South Dakota Prairie exhibit featuring native species, like black-footed ferrets, prairie dogs, and river otters. The plan also includes an optional location for an updated Delbridge Museum.

GPZ has provided valuable experiences and memorable moments for more than 60 years. This master plan sets up a sustainable, successful trajectory for the future.

A Message From the Leadership Team

My name is Leigh Spencer, and I am here on behalf of the leadership of the Great Plains Zoo and the Butterfly House & Aquarium. I have been with the Great Plains Zoo since 2012, and I am currently the Education Director for both the zoo and the Butterfly House & Aquarium. In my time as part of this team, I have seen a lot of change. Most of the positive changes have happened in the last three and a half years, since Becky took leadership of the zoo. We went from a top-down, secretive culture to a collaborative, supported team.

The merger of the Great Plains Zoo and Butterfly House & Aquarium was done thoughtfully, and the department leaders on both teams were included in the process. Our questions and feedback were welcome, information was shared early and often, and thanks to that involvement, we went into the merger with a lot of excitement and internal buy-in. Over the past year, our transition from two organizations to one, while not perfect, has been as positive and successful as we hoped it would be.

The process of developing this master plan was handled with similar transparency and collaboration. Department leaders were involved in planning sessions, allowed to contribute their ideas, concerns, and needs, and encouraged to provide feedback on preliminary designs. As a result, this master plan is endorsed by the leadership team and we are excited to bring it to the community.

Becky and Audrey have created a culture of thoughtful leadership, transparency, and collaboration, and so they have the support of the leadership team and staff. We are excited about this master plan, optimistic about our growth, and looking forward to our future. We hope you see and share our grand vision for the future of the Great Plains Zoo and the Butterfly House & Aquarium.