USDA considers grounding the whimsical release of butterflies

Symbols of ecological curiosity - or "environmental porn"?

That's the debate raging over butterfly releases - a controversy that's taken wing since the US Department of Agriculture proposed a law to make interstate shipment and release of six types of butterflies grounds for up to $250,000 in fines.

Currently, the USDA issues permits for the release of nine breeds. The new proposal would deregulate three breeds, but allow the other six - including monarchs - to be released only for research and testing, ending whimsical releases at weddings, funerals, and schools.

The USDA's aim, says lepidopterist Rick Mikula, is to protect 27 Kansas milkweed plants, which it suspects are damaged when caterpillars munch the leaves.

Mr. Mikula, who is a scientific adviser to the International Butterfly Breeders Association, has brought butterflies into classrooms and prisons for more than 20 years - programs that, he says, would suffer under the USDA's proposal.

The prison course grew so popular that its initial three-week session has been offered for six years. "Hardened criminals [would] come up to me at the end of three weeks and say, 'Man, that was the coolest thing,' and hug me," Mikula says.

"To watch [young offenders] get excited about learning is one of the greatest experiences," says Chris Anderson, who ran butterfly programs for incarcerated New Jersey youth. "This is something that butterflies, in particular, really do."

Even beyond its educational cost, says Mikula, the USDA proposal doesn't fly. "These monarch butterflies routinely [migrate] from Canada to Mexico and back. But [the USDA seems to say that] if I help them over a state line ... the ecological pyramid begins to collapse."

Mikula released 911 butterflies in Massachusetts as a tribute to victims of the World Trade Center attack and sent 450 into the sky at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. He'd like to make butterflies the national insect and encourages all children to raise them.

But butterflies "have a significant role in the ecosystem besides their role in the human psyche," cautions Jeffrey Glassberg, author of the field guide series "Butterflies Through Binoculars."

Although Mr. Glassberg questions why the USDA - founded to protect agriculture - would regulate wildlife, he supports restrictions on butterfly releases, which he calls "environmental pornography." Proponents "say it makes people feel good," he says. "But it's wrong to take something that should be a complex, beautiful emotion, and debase it."

Glassberg also worries that commercially raised butterflies might spread diseases to native populations or interfere with plant pollination. And he says their release muddles our ability to investigate butterfly movement: "One has no way of knowing whether a butterfly is a natural event or was just released at a wedding."

Chip Taylor, professor of entomology at the University of Kansas and director of Monarch Watch, a consortium of conservationists and researchers, says the proposal seems ill-fated: "I haven't seen anything that would lead me to believe there's justification for this regulation." To him, butterfly education is crucial in building awareness of nature.

But Glassberg compares raising butterflies on artificial "glop" to discovering farm life "by going to the store and buying milk."

The monarchs have flown south to Mexico now. The public comment period for the proposal ended Dec. 10. Once the USDA logs the responses, it will decide whether the migrating monarchs will be greeted by newly released commercial comrades on their trip north this spring.

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