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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Release Me: 'If butterflies are fair indicators,' says conservationist Dennis Murphy, 'a regional extinction crisis of shocking proportions is well under way.'

Wing And a Prayer

It seems everybody is crazy about butterflies these days. Trouble is, enthusiasts may be loving them into extinction.

By Mary Spicuzza

THOUGH DYSFUNCTIONAL, the mating ritual of the monarch butterfly has an undeniable poetry. Spewing a pheromone from spots on his vibrant orange-and-black wings, each male butterfly attracts a host of potential mates. While females float in a hormonally induced haze, the male picks his mate by grabbing her with his legs.

Both unable to fly, they gracefully fall to the ground together. There the female, never forgetting the importance of a strong mate, attempts to throw off her suitor. If able to withstand the struggle, the male strokes his chosen one with his knobbed antennas, lays his head next to hers, and as soon as she's sedated, he flips her over for a reproductive interlude. Afterward, he carries her to the tree tops, where they remain until sunrise. The following morning, she leaves him for the nearest milkweed patch and deposits her eggs where hungry young caterpillars can find food. Sometimes the male follows, and they die there together.

The monarch's unique courting traditions and migration patterns have existed for thousands of years, despite threats of urbanization, habitat loss, air pollution and, more recently, genetically engineered corn. Now some insect scientists, known as lepidopterists, worry that the survival of beloved monarchs and the country's other 750 butterfly species is threatened by an equally ingrained human mating tradition: the wedding.

Live butterfly releases, a fast-growing trend in which dozens to hundreds of them are released for weddings (as well as funerals, graduations and grade-school classes), are meant to celebrate hope, transformation and new beginnings. Commercial breeders present them as the green alternative for ceremonies and a way to boost struggling wild populations. Although butterfly enthusiasts normally applaud any celebration of the bug, they worry that well-meaning fans may be loving butterflies to death.

"I can't imagine an upside to the concept of butterfly releases," says Dennis Murphy, former director of Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology.

Murphy, a leading butterfly conservationist, now serves as a consultant for national environmental programs and teaches biology at the University of Nevada-Reno. "It may enhance interest in butterflies but does so in a way that sets out butterflies that will never reproduce and be lost to nature," he says. "We don't know what it does to the genes of wild species, which we're losing at an alarming rate. It's like fiddling while Rome burns."

Bridal Butterflies

'OUR GOAL is the conservation of butterflies by educating the public about the beauty and magic of butterfly releases," states the website for Magical Beginnings Butterfly Farms of Los Gatos. The site identifies Magical Beginnings as one of the largest butterfly farms in North America, adding that it produces some of the "largest and friendliest" monarchs in the world. Last year, the popular company hosted a large pre-Halloween butterfly release.

"A butterfly release is a truly unique experience, and it looks truly fantastic both on video and in photos," the homepage promises. "This new tradition is fun, ecologically sound, and enhances the environment."

The cost ranges from $160 plus shipping for the 16-butterfly Intimate Affair package to the $900 plus shipping for a Grand Affair kit, which features 100 monarchs, each shipped in an individual release package customized with names and dates commemorating the event.

Magical Beginnings is one of more than 30 butterfly farms that turned up during a quick web search. Others include Blessed Wings in Texas and Butterfly Kisses in Massachusetts.

"[Butterfly releasing] is a really hot item; we see it the same as the flower industry was about a hundred years ago. Now it's a new thing and seems like it's only going up," Magical Beginnings co-founder Michael Talesfore told Metro in 1997. More recent calls were not returned by Talesfore until after press time.

It's no wonder business is booming--it seems everyone is in love with butterflies these days. Sparkling butterfly clips crown women's hair; colorful wingspreads grace trendy T-shirts; and butterfly paraphernalia pack the aisles of shops ranging from Target to Longs Drug Stores. Butterflies are seen as a symbol of life, hope and transformation. And, for the more than 70 members of the International Butterfly Breeders Association, they make for good business.

"There is indeed an unprecedented and heartwarming interest in butterflies now occurring in the United States. The recent trend of butterfly releases, while statistically of negligible impact on overall butterfly populations, has resulted in significant favorable media attention and is directly responsible for increased public awareness of, and regard for, butterflies," says Sheri Moreau, an association member. "Butterfly exhibits are proliferating around the world."

Troubled Skies

ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE, author of the Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies and Chasing Monarchs, isn't as concerned with museum exhibits as he is about the survival of species in the wild. He and fellow members of the North American Butterfly Association cite concerns, including the spread of disease from farmed to wild populations, inappropriate genetic mixing of different butterfly populations, and migratory confusion. Pyle also says those trying to study native species and butterfly distribution find it hard to do their jobs when farmed butterflies are shipped and released around the country.

Breeders argue that the group's claims are sensationalized, biased and lacking proof based on proper scientific research.

"It is time for the doomsayers to do the math on this whole issue and recognize that regulated, conscientious commercial butterfly breeders serve important roles in public butterfly exposure and education--and in reality, significantly contribute to habitat restoration, pesticide-usage reduction and the overall well-being of butterflies worldwide," Moreau says.

She says the mere 30,000 butterflies released in 1997 didn't compare to the 355 million living in the wild. But Pyle believes the numbers are now much higher and says that even a few farmed butterflies can unleash disease in wild populations.

"All these people who breed butterflies, their mission statements are so full of biological crap. It's a smokescreen for profit," Pyle says. "They say they are ecologically friendly, but releases are a complete, utter red herring. The only way to preserve butterflies is to preserve their habitat."

Butterflies may be enjoying unprecedented popularity, but it doesn't seem to be helping their dwindling number of species.

Lepidopterists this winter concluded that butterfly populations are at a 30-year low in the Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin River Delta, and numbers are plummeting throughout the Bay Area. At Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, this year's 14,000 monarchs may sound like a lot--but it is less than a quarter of Natural Bridges' average population of 60,000 monarchs. Statewide monarch populations are reduced to about one-half to one-third of previous years, largely due to loss of milkweed patches to development, according to researchers at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Even without the current concerns, California already has a checkered past in its butterfly history. The state hosted the first well-documented extinction of a species, the Xerces blue. More than half of the nation's endangered butterflies are California natives. Because the decline is widespread and not linked to any direct cause, such as El Niño, researchers believe butterfly species statewide are facing especially rough times.

"Butterflies have always been an indicator species," Murphy says. "In the state with the extirpated grizzly bear on its flag, even insects are now vanishing. If butterflies are fair indicators, a regional extinction crisis of shocking proportions is well under way."

Because local butterflies typically rely on native plants for survival, their disappearance shows that other plant and animal species may already be extinct or on the brink of vanishing.

Due to concerns about the troubled bug, groups like the American Museum of Natural History, the National Wildlife Federation and Washington state's Department of Fish and Wildlife have all come out against commercial releases.

Yet Stuart Weiss, a researcher at Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology, isn't overly concerned about releases. "I think that's the least of the problems for butterflies in the area," Weiss says.

The center's current director, Carol Boggs, says although butterfly "gardens" can be a useful teaching tool, creatures raised solely for release have the potential to unleash a new set of troubles into the environment.

Nonetheless, Murphy, who since leaving Stanford's conservation center has served as a consultant for national studies like the massive Bay Delta-Cal Fed Restoration project, is more direct in his stance.

"The breadth of the conservation challenge includes figuring out how to use the goofy butterfly fad to do some good," Murphy says. "If we can advance butterflies as a symbol for preserving open spaces, like World Wildlife Fund has done with the panda bear, that will be a landmark step. People using butterflies to enhance their white-trash weddings is not."

Hope Floats

A CLASSIC EXAMPLE of conservationists' challenge and opportunities for saving a species is the bay checkerspot butterfly. The checkerspot once thrived throughout Silicon Valley as far north as the Stanford University campus. It can now only be found at a reserve bordering the Kirby Canyon landfill, near Morgan Hill. With Cisco Systems battling for space with Calpine, which hopes to build its Metcalf Energy Center in Coyote Valley, conservationists fear that the days are numbered for the beleaguered butterfly.

"If those projects go in the hills, the ecology of this whole area changes," Stanford's Alan Launer says. Launer, who focuses much of his research on Silicon Valley, is working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife on a project to reevaluate California's list of endangered and threatened butterflies. Funding changes have made the study extremely complicated, as has a new book, Systematics of Western North American Butterflies, which doubled the number California's butterfly species.

For the bay checkerspot and every existing species, conservationists know habitat preservation is key. Beyond protecting small, isolated spaces, keeping undeveloped "butterfly corridors" open is key.

Yet the butterfly debate is often burdened with heavy spiritual and emotional baggage. Carlos White, president of Insect Lore butterfly breeders, says, "Thousands of brides have rejoiced in the added meaning that their butterflies have given to their weddings. People's spirits are elevated through the small symbol of a butterfly during these butterfly releases. If releasing butterflies wasn't good for the environment, we wouldn't make it our business."

Lepidopterists are still debating the extent to which farmed butterflies spread disease in the wild, confuse the genetic makeup of wild species and mix up migration patterns. But in the meantime, noncommercial scientists seem to agree that releases aren't the eco-wonder breeders profess them to be. Pyle laments that, butterfly health aside, releases make his job tracking butterflies--aimed at determining where butterflies are thriving and where they need help--nearly impossible.

"Mapping programs are seriously undercut when people go tossing butterflies around the country. Maps become worthless," Pyle says. "The laws are not strict. Meanwhile, they tell young couples that they are doing something green."

Murphy, a more than 30-year veteran biologist who recently spent a weekend surveying species in Coyote Valley, says he doesn't think releases mean impending doom. But with a significant portion of California's 250 butterfly species on the verge of disappearing, he sees breeders professing to save butterflies as engaging in a delusional form of "butterfly masturbation."

Native Wisdom

'AN ANCIENT INDIAN [sic] legend states: If you desire a wish to come true, you must first capture a butterfly. Then whisper your wish to it. Because it is silent, it will tell no one. Release the butterfly and it will deliver your wish to the Great Spirit where it will be answered," Blessed Wings order form begins.

Release controversies aside, fans still may be loving butterflies to death. In March, Mexican environmental groups voiced concern over the 200,000 eco-tourists invading the forests to
visit the monarchs' overwintering grounds and the resulting deforestation as paths are cut to clear the way.

The case of San Jose's bay checkerspot butterflies show that butterfly gardens, even massive ones like the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, are not enough to support butterfly species and the native plants on which they feed. Thirty years ago, they thrived at the preserve; now they have completely vanished from Silicon Valley, except in the southern reaches of Kirby Canyon.

"If there is no regional conservation plan for Silicon Valley, species will continue to disappear," Stanford's Launer says. "Each place can do their project, but this project-by-project thing does not work."

"The disappearance of butterflies should be taken as a dramatic warning to human beings who depend utterly on the biological resources of our planet for their own survival," Murphy wrote in 1993.

Seven years later, in between meetings about conserving Lake Tahoe and flights to Washington, D.C., to discuss endangered species policy-making, Murphy says the story is much the same. "The fate of California is really going to be a story of what happens to our last open spaces. If you're concerned about butterflies, you need to conserve habitat."

As for weddings, Pyle and others suggest leaving the butterflies to their own mating rituals and throwing rose petals instead.

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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