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Butterfly Release Controversy - Learn the Facts

Butterfly Release or Not Release - That is the Question - Harry Pavulaan
Butterly Releases Unjustly Condemned - Sheri Moreau

Release or not to release: a different take

by Harry Pavulaan

With butterfly releases at weddings and other festive events apparently gaining in popularity, the concern over butterfly releases has been intensifying similarly. A quick browse of the internet will reveal that there are increasing numbers of butterfly farmers offering package deals (rather overpriced if you ask me), and apparently the business is booming. Yet, the practice has come under fire from some of the country's most respected names in lepidopterology and butterfly watching. Perhaps let this be a lesson to those who criticized the practice of throwing rice at weddings. If rice were to be detrimental to birds, then cities such as New York will be spreading rice citywide and the city will be free of pigeons by now. Butterfly releases are filling that niche.

Opposition to butterfly releases in the past was at a rather low level, but heated up just prior to July 4, 1997, with the media-attended National Butterfly Release that took place in Washington state and other localities nationwide. The event was intended to increase public awareness of the plight of butterflies, but drew a wide range of criticism and condemnation. Unfortunately, some of the most outspoken opponents based their criticism on emotion and hypotheticals and have demonstrated what appears to be a deliberate negligence of the fact that virtually no research has been published on the purported negative effects of butterfly releases.

I contend that little more stands to be gained (by those who advocate the outright banning of butterfly releases in general) than more governmental regulation based on lack of scientific information. In the face of pressure by a growing anti-release sentiment, state and federal government stands to overreact, and quite conceivably to ban the breeding of butterflies outright, thus creating a new class of criminal: butterfly releasers (can you imagine such a thing?)! Imagine your child committing a crime by releasing a butterfly! The big losers in this would not only be the commercial butterfly breeders, but also hobbyist breeders, backyard conservationists, educators and students. This is not to say that I support indiscriminate butterfly releases. On the contrary, I would not support an activity that I knew were detrimental to butterflies, but the fact is that we know absolutely very little about what really happens when large numbers of butterflies are released. We need to step back and take a look at the practice from a more objective perspective.



At this point, one probably wonders if there are any actual benefits to releases. A supportive view of the practice among butterfliers virtually borders on taboo, but there are benefits. Wedding releases aside, several activities stand to provide benefit, at least in a feel-good sense, while providing a minimal, temporary boost to butterfly populations. Unless demonstrated otherwise, they won't cause the mass-extinction of butterflies as some would like us to believe.

1. Public relations.

Were it not for the little (though increasing) media attention that butterflies and their pursuit receive, most people would not even notice the little winged creatures that share our environment (and radiator grills). Consider this: Today's material culture is very heavily media-focused. Images of the events that affect or shape our lives are formulated by sound bites and video clips on television. Advertisements assault the senses.

The National Butterfly Release of 1997 was intended to become an annual national event, bringing media attention to the plight of butterflies by releasing Monarchs and Painted Ladies. The concept now seems somewhat overly ambitious, and it came under criticism from many directions, but the goal was to bring the plight of butterflies to our attention by way of our television sets. Given the current political climate, such events seem to automatically attract criticism, while the real problems of habitat destruction only get mention, but little action.

However, small-scale local releases of locally bred butterflies, or captured butterflies (for re-release) of common, widespread species would benefit the plight of butterflies by attracting the general public and media attention that would otherwise not be given to such activities. A stretch of the imagination would be required to see how this type of activity could be detrimental to butterflies. Recommended butterflies include our most common species, such as Swallowtails, Sulphurs, Cabbage Whites, Monarchs, Painted and American Ladies, Red Admirals, and Buckeyes. These species are common and widespread enough to reabsorb the genes and diseases of their artificially-bred brethren, and they are common enough in nature already to not create a notable impact on butterfly counts. Larger public releases could work around previously established dates and locations for the 4th of July Counts, or avoid count circles. Again, butterflies intended for release/re-release could be marked for identification.

2. Education.

We need to be reminded that children, students, and people who are generally curious about nature like to raise butterflies so that their life cycles may be observed. They may want to free the butterflies that they raised, having learned from the experience (or they may wish to build a collection). Others may just feel good that they helped protect the growing caterpillar and chrysalis from predators, parasites or the elements. In either case, people develop an appreciation of the delicate nature and requirements of these creatures. Yet it has been suggested that even such backyard releases be discouraged and that it would be more humane to kill the butterfly or just to let it die in captivity than to allow it to be released! The absurdity of such suggestions astounds me.

3. Backyard conservation.

Many backyard naturalists have graduated from simple hands-off butterfly watching (in which absolutely nothing is done to help butterflies except to watch their numbers dwindle) to butterfly or wildlife gardening. This activity helps compensate for some of the habitat loss that butterflies are experiencing in our nation's growing urban areas. Some naturalists have gone a step further, by attempting to give local butterfly populations a boost through aggressive backyard conservation measures designed to complement butterfly gardening. These measures include habitat restoration/creation and may also include the captive rearing of butterflies obtained from local females. This might involve one caterpillar in a jar, or hundreds being raised in protective outdoor cages. Often, some species which may have occurred in a particular area before urbanization are reared for reintroduction using livestock collected in rural areas some miles beyond the city.

Considering the ratio of survival rates in nature, one female butterfly will produce one surviving pair of adult butterflies in a fairly balanced or stable ecosystem. By rearing 20, 50, 100 caterpillars, or even more, it is easy to calculate the boost that the local butterfly population will receive. If too many butterflies of one particular species are released for the ecosystem to handle, then the parasites, predators, and, yes, naturally-occurring viruses will put the population back in check within a generation or two. But in no way will a captive brood of butterflies incubate a devastating plague or develop into a generation of genetic freaks that will spread and decimate butterfly populations region-wide! Yet this activity still disturbs some national spokespersons against butterfly releases. Are we to just sit back and watch our butterfly fauna retreat in the face of wholesale habitat destruction around our nation's cities?

Until further research is conducted and published, I urge organizations and individuals to restrain from spreading hype that condemns the practice of releasing butterflies outright. Raising concerns over the practice is valid, but stirring up emotion with dire warnings of an ecological disaster border on irresponsible. Instead, I urge a cautious approach to the concept of releases and to consider the reasons why they are being conducted. I certainly don't recommend petitioning our legislators to pass laws criminalizing butterfly releases, unless the practice clearly gets out of control and obvious environmental problems manifest themselves. The North American Butterfly Association has taken a proper approach, by promoting the discouraging of individuals and wedding organizers from releasing butterflies as part of wedding ceremonies and educating them about the alternatives, though calling butterfly releases environmental pollution is somewhat extreme.

No laws will ever completely prevent the releasing of insects. Wedding releases are probably just a passing fad, and some other fad will take its place. Smart, successful breeders will strive to stay within established federal and state regulations, unless the practice is banned outright. Breeders ought to be held responsible for following safety guidelines and heeding the warnings of scientists. Indiscriminate releases of alien species ought not be allowed, as current laws forbid it, but on the other hand, legislative blanket bans on the breeding and release of butterflies should not be imposed. In the short-term, the marking of specimens intended for release, and certification of breeding facilities as disease free, will help alleviate the major concerns. In the longer term, perhaps breeders will come up with a way to produce sterile butterflies for releases, hopefully alleviating most remaining fears.


What are the current arguments against releases?

1. Bred/released butterflies spread disease into the native population.

All butterfly populations contain diseases to a varying degree. No new diseases will be released into the general population from bred butterflies of that population than already exist in nature. To the contrary, diseased bred livestock generally does not make it back into the wild population, as the popular notion has it. This is especially true for commercial breeders. It has been pointed out that commercial breeders are quick to destroy larval stock that exibits the slightest signs of disease. This makes business sense. From my own experience, I have frequently raised caterpillars that became lethargic and appeared to stop growing. I isolate these from healthy stock and dispose of them when they die. Containers are boiled, washed, and then sprayed with disinfectant. Any remaining healthy stock that might be a carrier of disease naturally has a degree of resistance to the disease, as any organism would. Thus, reason has it that these butterflies will pass their resistance on to their offspring. In this manner, bred/released stock could be viewed as providing benefit to the wild population!

There is, however, the possibility that released livestock bred in another region could be carrying disease into a region where the native population of that species does not contend with such disease. In this scenario, yes, disease could be spread. Localized species, especially those with distinct, isolated subspecies, might be highly susceptible to man-assisted transport of disease, but localized species are virtually never offered for wedding releases. They would most likely be banned from release by state regulatory authorities. The type of species offered for release are generally those which are widespread and common over broad regions, such as the Painted Lady, which occurs vitually worldwide; thus the likelihood of transmitting a completely new disease is extremely small. This is precisely where research is needed.

It would not be unreasonable to require agricultural inspection of large-scale breeding facilities, much as is practiced in the plant nursery mail order business. Businesses could be certified to provide healthy stock.

2. Bred/released butterfliespollute the gene pool.

This arguement bears merit, but it depends heavily on the biological nature of the species in question. Genetic reseach has shown that populations of localized, colonial species are genetically distinct by varying degrees from geographically removed populations of the same species. They may be genetically adapted to local conditions of climate, soil, vegetation and other factors. This is especially true when genetic distinctness is expressed as morphological characters that define subspecies. Introduction of non-native genes into a localized population could have detrimental effects and be disruptive to the natural process of evolution in that population. Research has just begun in this field, but we have a long way to go.

Again, the species generally offered for releases are broad-ranging species and not localized species. The Painted Lady's gene pool is spread over much of the hemisphere and may not be much different from those overseas. Currently, Monarchs are not permitted for release across the continental divide, based on the belief that west coast and east coast populations are isolated by the divide, and that no Monarchs will cross this barrier. Federal and state guidelines list certain species currently considered safe for transport and release in other regions, and these are generally approved. Other species must go through a fairly rigorous approval process at both the federal and state level. Regulators and members of the business community bear the responsibility for keeping abreast of research that aids the approval process.

In the meantime, much hype has been spread about the specter of doom and gloom for butterflies. A recent editorial in a popular butterfly magazine stated: Now imagine tens of thousands of mixed-up Monarchs unable to find their way to their overwintering grounds. Statements such as this are based on nothing more than hypothesis and are not based on scientific method. The possiblity that Monarchs, transported from one region to another, might not know where they are is merely hypothetical. On the contrary, recent scientific research, though preliminary, indicates that Monarch migratory movement is more complex than believed. They apparently, though rarely, DO cross the continental divide. Not all east coast Monarchs may overwinter in Mexico, as indicated by tag recoveries in the Bahamas, and may move to yet unknown roosting sites in the Caribbean.

Monarchs have the amazing capability of transoceanic flight, having found their way clear across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. They are now established in places like Hawaii, Australia, the Canary Islands, and more recently, Spain. They frequently turn up on Bermuda, and several have been found on the British Isles this year, migrants gone way astray. Or have they? A Monarch's internal guidance system may tell it precisely where it is, even if it is transported to opposite ends of the country. It has been hypothesized that translocated Monarchs will migrate with the rest of the population that they are introduced into. Offspring will similarly know where they are and where to go when it gets cold. This hypothesis is easily tested by mass-release of translocated, tagged Monarchs, which may be tracked by tag recovery.

A 1997 internet response to criticism over interstate transportation of Monarchs cited a 1966 study in which Ontario Monarchs were tagged, transported and released in Reno, Nevada. Some of these were reportedly recovered in one of the California overwintering sites. Subsequent studies in 1972 and 1994 reportedly released Pennsylvania, California and Nebraska Monarchs in Salem, Oregon. Tag recoveries occurred in overwintering sites along the California coast. Similar studies have yet to be conducted or published in which western U.S. Monarchs are released in the east and sought for recovery in the Mexico overwintering grounds. The point of these studies is that Monarch migratory movement is governed by environmental factors, not genetic ones.

3. Introduction of species into places where they are not native, or beyond their appropriate seasonal range, confounds and confuses scientific research and invalidates count results.

Indiscriminate transportation of species outside of their native range for deliberate introduction into new regions could have detrimental effects on the environment. For this reason, this practice is strictly regulated by current laws. Man-assisted introductions are generally forbidden, with the exception of introductions for field research studies or as part of biological weed-eradication programs. Species such as the Cabbage White and Gypsy Moth are blaring examples of irresponsible practices, with devastating results. We could name countless examples among our introduced weeds. Enforcement of current regulations and inspection of international shipments are designed to prevent this from happening.

One particular butterfly, the Queen, has been reported from new locations along the northeastern seaboard in recent years. Locations such as New York City, Rhode Island and Massachusetts would not be impossible, as the species has been reported as far north as Martha's Vineyard in the earlier part of the century (it also migrates far north into the plains states each year). However, the practice of releasing Queens at weddings casts doubt on the validity of these sightings. Charles Covell determined, several years ago, that a Queen observed at a location in Kentucky did indeed originate from a wedding release.

Concern has been expressed that some butterflies are being released in areas where they normally do not occur at particular times of year. For example, several years ago, I found an American Lady butterfly on a warm February day in Silver Spring, Maryland. Dick Smith, locally-renowned naturalist, suggested that the butterfly may have been released by school children (inconsiderate of the timing of the release). A very strong possibility, though American Ladies have been taken in parts of the northeast, including the New York city area, in December of some years! However, the fact that such records are now cast in doubt is a disturbing trend.

Such practices have the potential of confounding distributional research, especially if conducted on a large scale, and will have to be monitored more closely. I suggest that all released butterflies be tagged or appropriately marked by the breeders, so that at least the first generation releasees can be identified. This is where the industry can regulate itself, lest the government step in and establish regulations.

There has been some concern that released butterflies will artificially inflate butterfly counts, thus potentially invalidating results. A recent posting on an internet newsgroup formulated that the odds of count participants encountering released butterflies are astronomical, virtually nil. This can be demonstrated by the large number of Monarchs that are tagged across the continent each fall, numbering in the thousands. Yet only a tiny fraction, a mere hundred or so, are ever recovered in Mexico! However, were there a mass-release of thousands of Monarchs within a count circle, on the day of a 4th of July Butterfly Count, there is the likelihood that count results will be tainted. Groups need to inform the public of all activities, be they releases or counts, and be considerate of one another.

4. Releases are cruel.

Well, once a butterfly is freed, it is on its own to continue life. Nothing cruel about being freed. Generally, butterflies are expected to be handled carefully by release participants, who are usually instructed on how to release them unharmed. The suggestion was made that wedding release participants trample the butterflies in a fit of clumsiness and that flocks of birds descend on the release site, eating what's left. These are exaggerations of the imagination, right out of an Alfred Hitchcock novel. What is cruel, though, is the inconsiderate release of butterflies without regard to season or weather. No doubt, releasing Painted Ladies or Zebra Longwings in a place like Minneapolis in January is just plain cruel. And one certainly ought not release them in a raging downpour. I would like to add that releasing butterflies well outside of their range or appropriate season is a sad waste of small lives. They will not be able to carry on normal lives. Butterfly dealers ought to be made responsible for restricting and planning sales with weather and seasonal factors in mind, and to educate wedding organizers of proper release technique.

5. Monarch overwintering sites are being plundered by poachers.

So far, this has not been documented to be a problem. There may have been isolated instances of taking of overwintering Monarchs in the California overwintering sites, but I do not recall any well-publicized cases. In today's climate, any such cases would immediately receive widespread coverage and condemnation. We will hear about it. Poaching at the Mexican sites would be difficult at best. Aside from the constant monitoring that the Mexican sites receive, poachers would next have to contend with some of the strictest wildlife exportation regulations in the world. Even dead specimens are strictly forbidden from export from Mexico, with the exception of one sole business venture, dealing with the sale of butterfly specimens to provide cash income to preserve habitats. U.S. customs would have to be circumvented as well, no easy task. There is also considerably lower demand (probably none) for wedding-release butterflies in the U.S. and Canada at the time of year that the Monarchs are overwintering. There are certainly fewer outdoor wedding activities, and butterfly dealers ought to practice restraint over any temptation to ship butterflies to a frozen doom. Whether the practice has become popular in South America has not been reported. Wedding organizers in places like Argentina or Brazil certainly have enough exotic local stock to not bother with Monarchs.


Butterfly Release Unjustly Condemned

by Sheri Moreau

The joint statement in the Spring ‘98 NABA journal, “There’s No Need to Release Butterflies—They’re Already Free,” signed by Jeffrey Glassberg, Paul Opler, Robert M. Pyle, Robert Robbins and James Tuttle, is both gruesomely sensationalized and negatively biased, rather than supported by scientific research and fact. Among other alarmist statements, the authors wrote, “Now imagine tens of thousands of mixed-up Monarchs unable to find the way to their overwintering grounds.” and “Because the Monarchs were raised inside under unnatural conditions, it is possible that their delicate migratory physiology may not have been turned on.” Both of these statements have already been disproved by years of research, culminating with the irrefutable results of the Groth/Cherubini 1999-2000 Migration Study. This accumulated body of research categorically disproves the NABA claims, which are nothing more than assumptions perpetuated for some 30 years with no basis in fact or research support. For up-to-date results of the Groth/Cherubini study, visit The International Butterfly Breeders’ Association. Specific counterpoints to consider for those of you who read the NABA joint statement:

1. Commercial butterfly breeders are NOT releasing “tens of thousands of Monarchs” on the “wrong side” of the Continental Divide (i.e., outside of their natural migration pattern), therefore “mixed-up monarchs” are not a problem—even if physiologically, the phenomena could occur at all, which has been repeatedly disproved. There are strict State and Federal permitting requirements for the transportation of “plant pests” (which includes all members of the order Lepidoptera: butterflies and moths) across state lines. Most butterfly breeders today are in full compliance with regulations against trans-continental butterfly movement. Concerned butterfly clients can easily verify that their vendor has valid permits by visiting the USDA APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine website.

2. In point of fact, there have been nearly two decades of eastern/western Monarch transference research, with multiple reports of successful migration by relocated butterflies to the geographically appropriate overwintering area for the “adopted population” such as the Monarch caught in Marin County, released in Nebraska during the fall migration, and recovered in Mexico. There have also been cases of eastern Monarchs released in the Sierra that were recovered at overwintering sites along the California coast. Observation and tag-and-release studies conclusively prove that in the vicinity of the Continental Divide, putative “eastern” origin Monarchs will migrate to California, and “westerns” will migrate to Mexico. “Mixed-up” these Monarchs may be by human geographical border definitions, yet the butterflies still find their way to where they can safely survive winter’s cold. The determining factors appear more likely to be wind, weather, magnetic orientation and geography, not natal origin. In putting out their statement, the NABA co-signors deliberately ignored this research data.

3. In the past 20 years, there have been three separate DNA studies (four, if you count the University of Minnesota study currently in press) that have failed to discern significant differences in DNA between eastern and western Monarch populations. Natural population transfers occur during every windstorm. English lepidopterists reported at least 20 North American Monarchs found alive in the British Isles in the fall of 1998. Why is this information being ignored, even squelched?

4. In trying to put some rational numbers on this whole issue, Dr. Chip Taylor, director of the University of Kansas’s Monarch Watch, estimated that less than 30,000 artificially raised Monarchs were released in the United States in 1997, an estimate which combined commercial and educational releases together. With an estimated eastern/western Monarch population of 355 million, that equates to some 1.96e-12 percent, hardly a statistical blip in the total population. To help put these numbers in perspective, University of Minnesota Monarch researcher Dr. Karen Oberhauser notes in her instructor’s guidebook, “Monarchs in the Classroom” that each season birds and mice together consume over 3 million Monarchs per 2.5 hectare overwintering site in Mexico, or more than 24,000 per day per site. Currently, there are 11 such sites known.

5. In view of years of research to the contrary, it is difficult to conceive of a case wherein a Monarch’s “delicate migratory physiology may not have been turned on.” Robert Gendron, a Cal-Poly student with over six years of experience in Monarch tagging research, reported that in the 1997-1998 overwintering season, fifth generation captive-bred Monarchs released in the San Francisco Bay Area were subsequently spotted in four overwintering sites from Santa Cruz to Pacific Grove. In the 1999-2000 season, to date 17 7th generation Monarchs released in the Sierra have been observed at overwintering sites along the California coast. Dozens of tagged eastern Monarchs, hand-reared in classrooms by school children, have been released across Canada and North America and been recovered at Mexican overwintering sites. While some of these Monarchs were raised from wild-caught larvae, many thousands of them were from larvae sold in educational kits by the University of Kansas. Certainly the migratory mechanism was fully functional in these butterflies, reared hundreds, even thousands of miles from their birthplace.

6. Stating that overwintering sites in Mexico are now targets for butterfly release poachers is, frankly, ridiculous. Very few places in the USA are suitable for Monarch releases while the hundreds of millions are resting in Mexico, resulting in virtually no market for butterfly releases from mid-October to mid-April, a timeframe which exactly opposes the months the clusters are available for poaching. Then there is the difficulty of smuggling them into this country alive, once a would-be poacher has somehow located a market. It would be remarkable if poaching for release events is really occurring; certainly there has been no evidence or reports of such activities. Nor have there been reports of net-wielding bridegrooms sneaking into California Monarch sanctuaries during the overwintering months. The market—and the weather—simply aren’t conducive to live butterfly releases in the winter.

7. Stating that “butterflies raised by unregulated commercial interests may spread diseases and parasites to wild populations, with devastating results” is in direct contravention to what butterfly breeders experience in their farming operations. Commercial breeders who do not maintain pathogen-free breeding conditions are out of business in a season or less. Predators, parasites and pathogens have far more impact on wild butterfly populations, where less than 2% of all eggs are able to mature into adult butterflies. Simple observation can quickly demonstrate this: wild butterfly larvae brought home and quarantined for observation are often (20%-85%) infested with tachinid fly, ichneumon wasp, or brachonid wasp larvae; problems which rarely, if ever occur in captive-reared populations. Wild Monarch adults tested around the USA have 5% - 95% infestation rates. Dr. Kingston Leong of Cal-Poly has published research data reporting this protozoa in every state in the USA (less Alaska) and in every other population of Monarchs world-wide. A decade of field research has shown that the habits of wild Monarchs are adapted to this protozoa, and result in successful co-existence, otherwise we would certainly not have had the record numbers of Monarchs observed in 1997-1998. Interestingly, Dr. Sonia Altizer, while a University of Minnesota graduate student doing her dissertation on Monarchs, reported at the November 1997 tri-country Monarch conference that the offspring of eastern Monarchs crossed with western Monarchs were MORE resistant to the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha protozoa, the disease of most concern to the NABA statement co-signors. Her final results are currently in press and are expected out in early 2000.

8. It is important to remember that all butterflies are pollinators for plants and food for other creatures, whether in their wanderings they enter areas where their specific host plants exist or not. Butterflies have wings; state boundaries are invisible to them. Any major storm system sweeping across the country relocates and/or kills tens of thousands of butterflies. A female butterfly unable to locate her host plant will move on, just as they do all summer long. Yes, there are butterfly species that cannot successfully adapt to ecological changes, many if not most of them small, fragile-winged, and area-specific species (the blues seem particularly environmentally fragile). By comparison, Monarch host plants are found nearly everywhere in North America, and strong fliers that they are, Monarchs are one of the most widely dispersed butterflies in the world.

9. A thoughtful reader must seriously question the allegorical comparison and recommendation in the NABA statement between the “1947 outlawing of the intentional release of native birds” and putting a stop to the release of butterflies. Insects are not in the same classification as birds; the two Phyla don’t even begin to be comparable. In point of fact, hundreds of thousands of bobwhites, quail, pheasants and turkeys are released in this country annually. When making dubious allegories, did the authors consider halting the release of millions of salmon fry each year—after all, these are migratory fish. Moreover, tens of billions of predatory and sterile insects are released each year as natural biological insect controls-putting a stop to that would mean megatonnage increases in pesticide usage, scarcely a desirable outcome.

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. Butterfly exhibits are proliferating around the world. It is time for the doomsayers to do the math on this whole issue, and to 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.

About the Author: Trained as a wildlife biologist, Sheri Moreau is a past member of the Board of Directors of both the Monarch Program and the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association, and Director of The Butterfly Conservancy. She has raised Lepidoptera for the past 36 years.




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