A South Texas butterfly sanctuary will close indefinitely due to safety concerns after it was repeatedly targeted by right-wing conspiracy theorists who baselessly accused it of aiding human traffickers.
“[The] Board has decided to close the center, but continue to pay staff, for the immediate future,” National Butterfly Center Director Marianna Treviño-Wright told HuffPost on Tuesday.
“The board’s paramount concern is the safety of staff, members and visitors,” she added. “So for that reason, they have made the decision to close the center for the immediate future while they seek expert advice and formulate a plan that will best serve our interests and public safety moving forward.”
The butterfly conservatory, which pushed back against Trump administration efforts to erect sections of a U.S.-Mexico border wall near its 100-acre nature preserve in Mission, Texas, has been tied up in litigation for years with the former presidential administration and its allies at We Build The Wall, making it an ongoing target for harassment.
The sanctuary closed from Friday to Sunday for the duration of the We Stand America border security rally nearby, headlined by QAnon conspiracy theorists and supporters of former President Donald Trump. Treviño-Wright said she received a warning from an acquaintance involved with Republican politics to be “armed at all times or out of town” during the rally because she and the park would be a target for its attendees.
The park reopened on Monday and Tuesday to members only, but will now close to both members and the rest of the public amid ongoing fears for the safety of its staff and patrons.
On Monday, Treviño-Wright had told HuffPost that the board of the North American Butterfly Association, the National Butterfly Center’s parent organization, would have to “decide whether we’re going to stay open or not because of the stochastic terrorism that all of these political operatives are trying to stir up against us.”
She pointed to real-world violence inspired by these kinds of narratives, such as a Washington, D.C., shooting inspired by the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that Democratic elites were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizzeria, or, closer to home, the 2019 Walmart massacre in El Paso, another Texas border city where We Build the Wall was crowdfunding donations to erect a private barrier on the border. The El Paso gunman’s manifesto echoed Trump’s language about immigration.
A spokesperson for the Mission Police Department confirmed Treviño-Wright had been in touch with police about her concerns. He said police officers would continue to do standard community patrols. “Our response time is fast,” he said.
Following news reports about the butterfly center’s decision to shut down for the weekend, several attendees of the We Stand America event shot and posted footage near the National Butterfly Center’s sign.
A Republican congressional candidate from South Carolina, Lynz Piper-Loomis, posted a video of herself and Women Fighting for America founder Christie Hutcherson near the sign, saying they could see no evidence of a “threat” against the center.
And they seemed to suggest the perceived threat was against the butterflies, not the people at the park.
“We need to protect the butterflies. I agree with that. So Biden, why don’t you build the wall to protect the butterflies?” asked Hutcherson, who attended the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that preceded the Capitol riot and is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a far-right religious zealot” who participates in border vigilante activities.
“Why are you more concerned about butterflies, than you are [about] little children who are being trafficked?” she added, claiming that human traffickers “use the butterfly land.”
Another clip was posted over the weekend by Ben Bergquam, a correspondent for Real America Voice, a far-right news site that also hosts Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
In it, he is holding a child’s shoe with the butterfly center’s sign in the background, claiming the shoe is from “one of the children that was trafficked.”
A spokesperson for the Mission Police Department said undocumented crossings take place at many junctions along the border and that he wasn’t aware of any reports that there is specific activity at the butterfly center’s premises.
U.S. Border Patrol did not return multiple requests for comment.
Attendees of the We Stand America rally were also pictured at a section of the border over the weekend, toting flags and singing “Amazing Grace.” At least one man was carrying an assault rifle. According to the event page, it included a “caravan” to the border.
A week prior to the rally, a right-wing congressional candidate from Virginia, Kimberly Lowe, had visited the center, shooting videos for social media and accusing staff of being “OK with children being trafficked and raped.”
The Mission Police Department was called to the premises. The department told HuffPost that its investigation into the matter is ongoing.
Lowe told HuffPost on Friday that following the publication of news reports about her, Hutcherson turned her away from the We Stand America rally. Lowe claimed she was told that she had endangered the event.
The butterfly center first sued the Trump administration in 2017 on environmental grounds, arguing that proposed border wall construction would destroy crucial habitat for butterflies and birds, and even block migration routes for species that fly lower to the ground. The center alleges that workers began work surveying their land and cutting down trees on their property without permission.
It later sued We Build the Wall, a nonprofit led by Bannon that raised more than $25 million with online fundraisers. The lawsuit accuses the organization and its founder, Brian Kolfage, of defaming the butterfly center and Treviño-Wright, and opening them up to “targeted harassment,” among other allegations about its efforts to construct the wall in Texas near the nature preserve.
Kolfage, Bannon and several others were indicted in August 2020 for allegedly using We Build the Wall donations for personal expenses.