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article imageOp-Ed: Butterfly warriors want city ordinance to restore dignity Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Dec 5, 2013 in Environment
San Francisco - The effect of the flutter of a butterfly's wings is certainly stirring up various officials and activists at San Francisco City Hall as efforts are being made at setting a ban on the release of the winged-insects into the air.
Similar to what he said to the SF Examiner, Lepidopterist researcher, Liam O’Brien told this reporter, "hands-down, this is an important decision and I think San Francisco is one of the best places to make an important distinction in favor of the environment."
He mentioned that since the story initially broke in The Examiner on Dec. 3, "The flood-gates opened and I have been busy responding to inquiries," he said.
There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. According to the North American Butterfly Association. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico. In many parts of the U.S. about 100 species can be found easily during their peak season of spring to summer when weather is fair and warm. Their average life-span is about 30 days.
So, why all the fuss? About a dozen comments posted at The SF Examiner web site, thought the idea of banning the release of farm raised butterflies was ridiculous and a waste of the Board of Supervisors' time.
When not researching butterflies and other wildlife  citizen scientist  Liam O Brien spends time dra...
When not researching butterflies and other wildlife, citizen scientist, Liam O'Brien spends time drawing and sketching, making illustrations of butterflies.
original illustration courtesy of Liam O'Brien
O'Brien explained, "people might have the impression this is of frivolous concern, but actually it is not," he said. "Releasing so many artificially bred species into the environment has an impact on the delicate balance of nature."
"That recent release of 500 Monarch Butterflies, by the California Academy of Science for example, he said, interferes with the natural migration of the species." O'Brien is a citizen scientist who tallies and researches butterflies professionally. He said that when large groups are released like that, "wilily-dilly I had to discard my entire butterfly count of Monarchs for the year and toss all that work out," he said.
Butterflies like many of natures creatures are indicators of the bounty as well as the condition nature is in. If humans tamper with the natural ebb and flow, then it is hard to discern what is nature's way. "I agree 100 percent with Liam," said local naturalist, guide and author Jack Muir Laws. "I think it is no good for the butterflies and potentially damaging to natural systems." Laws has written several guide books in addition to being an educator, illustrator of bird and wildlife. He noted that it is important that wildlife be respected in proper focus. Laws make it clear that while he was not an expert with the latest data and research, as a naturalist "its is best to maintain a cautionary principle," he said.
Naturalist Amber Hasselbring and citizen scientist and professional researcher  Liam O Brien see the...
Naturalist Amber Hasselbring and citizen scientist and professional researcher, Liam O'Brien see themselves as butterfly warriors. The Western Tiger-Swallowtail Butterfly seen here is one of the species common to the Market Street area of San Francisco. According to O'Brien, Hasselbring and others like naturalist John Muir Laws, "Butterflies see city streets as 'canyons' where they can rest (on trees) and feed."
Courtesy of Amber Hasselbring and Liam O'Brien
"I doubt very much if people would be very enthusiastic about releasing a large bunch of squirrels or bats into the environment each time a group or party wanted to celebrate an occasion," O'Brien said. "Think of what the consequences would be if people were to take this trend and apply it to other animals or insects such as bats and squirrels," he said.
O'Brien was clear that butterflies are not something we should look upon as something whimsical, existing only for our enjoyment. "They are not party-favors," he said. While seeing them flutter about is a thing of beauty, their delicate existence has a purpose.
They are the food source for other insects and birds."Butterflies for all their beauty are actually a smorgasbord in the food chain cycle," said O'Brien. While their life-span is very brief their position in the chain of nature is crucial to the life of flower plants. and birds. "Artificially bred female butterflies do not have the ability to carry eggs, so they can not reproduce," said O'Brien. He also noted that in some instances of artificial breeding, some butterflies were susceptible to bacteria and once contaminated can transmit that as they pollinate and feed.
Referring to themselves as  Butterfly Warriors  naturalist Amber Hasselbring and professional resear...
Referring to themselves as "Butterfly Warriors" naturalist Amber Hasselbring and professional researcher Liam O'Brien want to raise the people's awareness that the commercialization of farm-raised butterflies could have negative and unintended consequences later on.
Courtesy of Liam O'Brien
Still those in favor of raising butterflies for events and special occasions like Dale McClung of the International Butterfly Breeder's Association do not see the harm. And, if farm-raised butterflies do not reproduce with such a short life-span, how can it really harm the environment? Some people ask.
O'Brien and naturalists like Laws and Amber Hesselbring want people to understand that even the tiniest of creatures in our natural world have a purpose which is contingent upon the natural health of the environment and that includes urban settings too. With regards to Monarch butterflies, Laws noted that they have a very complex migration system and that their pattern is an intricate collective of each butterfly working in conjunction with another. "I think butterflies should not be released in massive quantities, like party favors just as I think releasing party balloons into the air is a bad idea," he said. (Once deflated if they fall into the oceans, they are often mistaken by other sea-creatures as jelly fish and consumed.). Laws said "it is important to pay attention to the fact that the loudest voices in favor of farm-raising butterflies profit from the commercial enterprise."
Some people in the pro farm-raised enterprises side see their work as "re-introducing" butterflies into the environment. "That to me is misguided and wrong," said Laws. "To view these beautiful and wonderful creatures as an expendable 'party-favor' novelty just for the whim of humans is disturbing," Laws said. "And, it has noting to do with reintroducing species." It actually distorts and breaks the connection humans have with nature, not enhance it.
Together in addition to their work as researchers O'Brien and Hasselbring have launched a campaign called, "Tigers on Market Street." The tigers being the "Western Tiger-swallowtail Butterfly." This species is found along Market Street.
Butterflies view city streets as "canyons" which contain trees, and various plant life on which to rest and feed. Birds and other insects in turn follow the butterfly allowing them their place in the chain or natural cycle of life. While O'Brien and others are working to find the specifics of how the excessive release of farm-raised butterflies impact the environment, (such as which bacterial element is harmful to birds, etc.) O'Brien was very candid.
"I am not overly concerned about the details of the scientific debate, as I know there are pros and cons to this issue," said O'Brien. "I simply see this as an ethical issue about the dignity of nature. O'Brien knows why the trend of this sort is popular, "at $10.00 a butterfly, he said, it is a money-making industry."
A successful breeder can earn up to $250,000 annually, noted the Examiner report. "What does this say about our relationship to nature?" O'Brien posed the question as he sees the trend as having negative outcomes on future generations.
McClung responded speaking on behalf of the IBBA by noting in a post, "Most butterfly farming operations (even the larger ones) are mom and pops who do it for their love of butterflies." He doubts if passed that such a ban would be enforceable anyway.
Even if intentions are good, O'Brien and others like the North American Butterfly Association see the trend as hazardous. The responses of support O'Brien has received have been overwhelming. He sees the commercialization of butterflies as "icky and kind of creepy." The over-producing of one species can off-set the migration patterns and food supplies of other species. "There have been Monarch species found in places where they don't migrate and that is an indicator that the butterfly was artificially bred and released for some event or occasion," he said.
Laws said as a naturalist and nature-lover he would be embarrassed to be apart of an event that planned release of commercially-raised butterflies. "Butterflies are beautiful creatures with a long and intricate evolutionary past." "To see one is a delight and a gift," he said. "Educate your friends and colleagues, he added, to let nature be nature." "If you want to see the sky filled with butterflies, go visit one of the Monarch Butterfly overwintering areas such as Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, and not the opening of your local mall," Laws said.
O'Brien hopes the City will pass legislation to stop the trend. He was excited that the SF Dept. of the Environment has taken an interest in the cause. Laws believes the very first step should be education and more research. "Liam is a good biologist. I have a lot of respect for him. He is a good-faith player in this work," said Laws.
And, even if the proposal for some legislation at the local level does not pass, O'Brien is undaunted. No doubt some will consider it a 'laughing-stock issue' yet he knows it's important and environmentally correct and sound. "I am proud that San Francisco is at the forefront of this change," said O'Brien. "It is really a change in mind-set, one that sees butterflies respectfully as creatures of nature, he said, and not as a commodity or a novelty for humans to exploit."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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