There's No Need to Release Butterflies --
They're Already Free
by Jeffrey Glassberg (president of NABA); Paul Opler (author of Peterson
Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies); Robert M. Pyle (author of Audubon
Society Field Guide to Butterflies); Robert Robbins (curator of Lepidoptera,
Smithsonian Institution) and James Tuttle (president, (Lepidopterists' Society)
Reprinted with permission.
fifth graders can tell you how the magnificent Monarch butterflies migrate thousands of
miles every autumn from the United States and Canada to a few small mountain tops in
Mexico. There they find the right environmental conditions that allow them to survive the
winter. With the advent of spring, they begin their return journey. This migratory
phenomenon is truly a wonder of nature that sparks the imagination.
imagine tens of thousands of mixed-up Monarchs unable to find the way to their
overwintering grounds. This depressing image may become a reality if the rapidly-growing
fad of releasing butterflies, including Monarch butterflies, at weddings, state fairs, and
other public events continues to spread. Because the released Monarchs may have come from
California, for instance, where they do not migrate to Mexico, their offspring may not be
able to orient properly,. Because the Monarchs were raised inside under unnatural
conditions, it is possible that their delicate migratory physiology may not have been
interest in butterflies is increasing dramatically. We hope and expect this greater
involvement with butterflies will eventually lead to much-needed support for butterfly
conservation and studies, but the release of live butterflies is the dark side of this
increase in popularity. Although this practice is understandable to naive newlyweds-to-be
(what could be more beautiful than adding butterflies to the environment?) it is really a
particularly long-lasting form of environmental pollution.
raised by unregulated commercial interests may spread diseases and parasites to wild
populations, with devastating results. Often, butterflies are released great distances
from their points of origin, resulting in inappropriate genetic mixing of different
populations when the same species is locally present. When it is not, a non-native species
is being introduced in the area of release. At best, this confuses studies of butterfly
distribution and migration; at worst, it may result in deleterious changes to the local
ecology. The Hollywood Jurassic park message, "Don't fool with Mother Nature,"
has scientific foundations. Recently a high profile report in Science magazine found that
even the careful introduction of species for biological control often causes unexpected
addition, these releases create a commercial market for live butterflies (currently about
$10/apiece), with the result that, for example, the Monarch overwintering sites in Mexico
and on the California coast are now targets for poachers.
the interstate shipment of live butterflies requires a permit from the U.S. Department of
Agriculture but this law is not usually enforced. In general, the Dept. of Agriculture may
issue a permit for shipping any of the following species: Monarch, Painted Lady, American
Lady, Red Admiral, Giant Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary, Zebra (Heliconian), and Mourning
Cloak. Shipping Red Admirals, Giant Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries and Zebra
(Heliconians) is particularly inappropriate because they are not naturally found over much
of the United States.
solution that better serves the public interest with less regulatory burden is to ban the
environmental release of commercially-obtained butterflies (we would exempt education
institutions, although even here we would encourage schools to keep commercially-obtained
butterflies within the confines of the school). The intentional release of native birds
was outlawed in 1947. The time has come to do the same with butterflies.
addition to the above, many wedding planners now avoid butterflies at weddings because
they not infrequently arrive dead, or half-dead. (See the recent article in the New York
Times "Festive Release of Butterflies Puts Trouble in the Air" on page F4 of the
Sept. 15, 1998 edition). Even if alive, they often will soon die because they are released
at the wrong time of year, or at the wrong locality to survive.
truly beautiful and environmentally friendly way to celebrate a wedding is to throw rose
petals. You can even use outdated roses from your florist.
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