San Francisco may be the first major city to ban the release of commercially bred butterflies, a popular ceremonial practice at weddings that environmentalists say threatens the species.
Local urban lepidopterist Liam O’Brien was one of the environmentalists that called upon San Francisco’s Commission on the Environment to vote the ban into place on Tuesday, though any decision the commission comes to will need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors before it can be written into law.
“They are not creatures to be owned. They are not party favors for the human circus,” O’Brien told the San Francisco Examiner. “We all know the exultation of a butterfly release. But it’s really a hellacious relationship to nature.”
The proposed resolution identifies a number of adverse effects butterfly releases have on efforts to maintain and the city’s butterfly biodiversity, including the disease and disadvantageous genes farmed butterflies could spread to the wild population if released.
“Experts on butterfly conservation have also declared that releases may present problems through the transfer of disease from wild habitats, laboratories or industrial breeding facilities to other colonies, where die-off may result or diseases may weaken wild populations and make them more susceptible to other stressors,” the resolution reads. “Experts state that release of non-native and/or commercially raised butterflies can cause the introduction of deleterious genes into local populations, which could negatively influence the survivorship potential of native butterflies.”
“Allowing the sale of butterflies creates a commercial market for butterflies,” said Jeffrey Glassberg, head of the North American Butterfly Association, which supports the ban. “Individual monarchs sell for about $10 each. There have already been reports of individuals capturing monarchs at the California overwintering sites to sell to the public.”
The declining monarch is particularly at stake, environmentalists warn. The number of monarchs making their way to their yearly winter refuge in Mexico dropped 59 percent this year, marking the third consecutive year of the species’ decline.
Ceremonial releases of farmed butterflies, the proposed resolution states, interfere with scientists’ ability to understand wild butterflies’ breeding locations, migratory patterns and conservation needs.
Opponents from the butterfly breeding industry argued that the ban was counterintuitive.
“If they disallow reintroduction they will actually be injuring the butterfly population,” Dale McClung, a spokesperson for the International Butterfly Breeders Association, told the Examiner. “People are just going to order butterflies anyway.”