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WHy it's good to release butterflies (HARRY PAVULAAN)

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To 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 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.

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 exhibits 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 virtually 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 butterflies "pollute" the gene pool.

This argument bears merit, but it depends heavily on the biological nature of the species in question. Genetic research 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 over-wintering grounds." Statements such as this are based on nothing more than hypothesis and are not based on scientific method. The possibility 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 over-winter 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 trans-located 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 trans-located, 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 over-wintering sites. Subsequent studies in 1972 and 1994 reportedly released Pennsylvania, California and Nebraska Monarchs in Salem, Oregon. Tag recoveries occurred in over-wintering 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 over-wintering 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 "releases" 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 over-wintering Monarchs in the California over-wintering 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 over-wintering. 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.

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.

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