Thursday, December 13, 2001

Toxic waste

The USDA goes after butterflies


        The last time a child of mine played with a butterfly, it was part of a school science project. And one of my favorites. Neat, clean and you could buy a kit. Personally, I think it would be a greater service if the government would address the issue of baking soda volcanoes. Or Styrofoam solar systems.

        But right now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has Monarch butterflies on its agenda. Which is remarkable considering that anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease and West Nile virus also are on the agenda. And considering that the department just requested $45.2 million in emergency funding to “strengthen essential programs and services related to biosecurity issues.”

        These butterflies — or these children — must be a real menace.

Saving milkweed

        The USDA is trying to “restrict the way children raise, collect and study butterflies,” according to Rick Mikula, founder of the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA) and author of the news release.

        Unless persuaded otherwise by Dec. 31, the agency will restrict commercial Monarch breeding and release. The penalty could be as much as $250,000 in fines and five years in the federal pen. “These new regulations will also force many, if not all, butterfly farmers and live butterfly exhibits out of existence,” Mr. Mikula claims.

        The USDA is just trying to protect milkweed plants from butterfly larvae, according to the USDA's Wayne Wehling.

        “It's a weed,” Mr. Mikula says helplessly. “Even if the larvae ate them up, they'd grow back. I've been using the same patch of milkweed for 21 years. They eat it down, it grows back up.”

        Unless the root is destroyed, too, which is the reason you don't see many milkweed plants at strip malls. Or inside gated communities. “Habitat destruction has reduced the milkweed plant's range and numbers,” according to Orley Taylor, a butterfly expert from the University of Kansas.

The Krohn connection

        Farm-raised Monarchs account for about 100,000 butterflies, and the natural Monarch population each year in America, depending on conditions, is 100 million to 400 million. Most of the butterflies shipped across state lines go to schools. But they are growing in popularity as a novelty at weddings, and an impressive cloud of them was released this summer at the Little League World Series.

        “One of the concerns is that commercial butterflies might carry pathogens or bacteria,” says Andrea Schepmann, who runs the Krohn Conservatory's popular butterfly show. “We are carefully regulated, even though our butterflies are not released into the wild.”

        She says the USDA appears to be trying to get a handle on something that has a potential for harm. Which makes a lot more sense than anything I've heard from butterfly growers or government officials.

        So, even if I have to deal with another foaming volcano or carve Jupiter out of Styrofoam, I am all for protecting the Monarch butterfly from harm. And I think the government should work on this.

        Right after it finds an AIDS vaccine, a cure for cancer, more money for education and a defense against bioterrorism.


        E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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