In the early morning hours of June 3, some two-dozen armed federal agents swept into the west Texas town of Fort Davis acting on a tip. Their mission: to put a suspected international dealer out of business.
After serving a search warrant, they collected 200 containers full of alleged contraband. Only a few grams can have a street value of $1,300. Each piece of evidence had six legs. Some even had wings.
Welcome to the world of exotic insect contraband, where sellers have PhDs and buyers have names like Smithsonian.
The Fort Davis raid was the latest salvo in a controversial federal crackdown on net-wielding bug rustlers. Since 1991, agents from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have seized some 40,000 butterflies, moths, and beetles from collectors across the country. They have netted five collectors who pleaded guilty to violations of federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act.
More than two-dozen individuals and museums have forfeited illegally collected insects. One museum caught in the federal sting was the Smithsonian, which was forced to give up more than 500 butterflies from Mexico.
The enforcement actions have riled the normally staid world of entomology. Many collectors say the government has gone too far and that it is wasting huge amounts of time and money protecting insects that need no protection.
"The law is so vague it can be applied several ways," complains Chris Durden, a paleobiologist at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin who studies primitive insects. In 1993, federal agents confiscated from Mr. Durden's lab 3,000 butterflies and moths that had been illegally collected in Mexico. Federal sources say that Durden will not be charged with a crime, but that all the specimens seized from him will be forfeited and donated to a museum or returned to Mexico.
Much of the federal enforcement activity relies on the 96-year-old Lacey Act. Under the act, if an American poaches a plant or animal that is protected in a foreign country and brings that species into the US, that person risks federal prosecution. Penalties for each violation can include up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. The law was revised in 1981 to include insects, and recent enforcement efforts have left many entomologists and lepidopterists fuming.
Durden says the Lacey Act puts the US government in the position of "enforcing the laws of other countries that may or may not be enforced in those countries." And he argues that collecting insects and butterflies for study is an insignificant threat when compared with habitat destruction. "A collector has virtually no impact on a population," Durden insists.
But his assertion is not universally accepted. "You'd have to be a complete idiot to say that collecting butterflies can't impact their populations," says Jeffrey Glassberg, the president of the North American Butterfly Association, a New Jersey-based group that advocates watching butterflies rather than collecting them.
Dr. Glassberg contends that current butterfly-collecting laws are at a similar state to those that governed bird hunting 75 or 100 years ago. "Now we have regulations on hunting ducks so they don't hunt the rare ducks to extinction," he says.
Glassberg, who holds a degree in biology, says, "If somebody is breaking the law, they ought to be prosecuted."
Rob Lee is a FWS special agent and lead investigator in the case of Terry Taylor, the insect dealer based in Fort Davis, Texas, whose operation was raided by federal agents. Mr. Lee says Mr. Taylor was under investigation for a year before the search warrant was served on his property. "We believe he is the largest importer and exporter of insect specimens in America," Lee says.
Taylor, who has not yet been charged with any crime, handles about 10,000 different species and his collection is estimated to contain more than 5 million individual specimens.
Utilizing contacts around the world, Taylor imports all types of insects, including giant silk moths from the Philippines, butterflies from Papua New Guinea, and beetles from Africa and South America. He then repackages and sells the arthropods to museums, universities, and collectors. Lee says his investigation of Taylor centers on whether the insect import business fully conforms to the Lacey Act.
While most of Taylor's insects sell for a few dollars, some are quite expensive. For example, Taylor's catalog lists a tiger beetle from Nambia, the Mantica horni, which sells for $1,300. Some rare insects sold on the black market can bring more. A pair of rare butterflies known as alpine silks can sell for more than $30,000.
In a telephone interview, Taylor admits that he may have some illegal insects. "But goodness," he says, "there's been no paperwork or effort to help people like myself to come into compliance. If we are guilty, it's through ignorance, which I suppose is no excuse."
Lee says it could be months before the investigation is complete. He is still sorting through thousands of insect specimens seized from Taylor.