San Francisco could become the first major city to outlaw the release of commercially bred butterflies as the practice that took off nationwide in the mid-1990s persists at weddings, funerals and other special events.
While the release of butterflies is a meaningful sight to behold, it all comes with potential environmental hazards. To local urban lepidopterist Liam O’Brien, the act is inhumane and poses a detriment to species, such as the prized monarchs, that are on the decline. Lepidoptery deals in the study and collection of moths and butterflies.
“They are not creatures to be owned. They are not party favors for the human circus,” O’Brien said. “We all know the exultation of a butterfly release. But it’s really a hellacious relationship to nature.”
He is among those calling on the Commission on the Environment to vote today in favor of banning the release of commercially raised butterflies in San Francisco. A ban would need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors to become law.
O’Brien has been working on the effort since 2008, when he watched the California Academy of Sciences release 500 monarch butterflies to mark the opening of its Golden Gate Park home.
The proposal has pitted butterfly breeders against environmentalists. The two sides have had a long-standing debate about the impacts commercially bred butterflies can have on wild butterflies.
The North American Butterfly Association and the Bay Area’s Bay Nature Institute support the ban.
Jeffrey Glassberg, head of the North American Butterfly Association, said in a letter that commercial breeding harms wild butterflies with the threat of disease and genetic weakness, and it interferes with scientific studies. Also, it’s simply wrong to ship adult butterflies, he contends.
“Allowing the sale of butterflies creates a commercial market for butterflies,” Glassberg said. “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.”
Dale McClung, a spokesman for the 100-member International Butterfly Breeders Association, refuted claims that the bred butterflies are harmful and said they actually can have a benefit.
“If they disallow reintroduction they will actually be injuring the butterfly population,” McClung said. He added that a ban would be unenforceable. “People are just going to order butterflies anyway.”
A successful breeder can earn up to $250,000 annually, McClung said, and commercial butterfly breeding is a multimillion-dollar industry. One of the largest butterfly breeders, Swallowtail Farms in El Dorado, charges between $85 and $95 per dozen monarchs.
Department of the Environment spokesman Guillermo Rodriguez said the proposal is “commission driven,” meaning it wasn’t a recommendation from department staff, and the department will wait for direction. Rodriguez said proponents have started to meet with wedding and meeting planners who would be most impacted.
“It’s not a very big business in San Francisco,” Rodriguez said.
Ban crazy in S.F.
City officials and agencies seem to have a tendency to propose – and often pass – restrictions that make headlines for their unique goals.
–Owning an unneutered pit bull
–Feeding famed Telegraph Hill parrots
–Pet sales, including goldfish*
–Toys in Happy Meals
–Segways on sidewalks
–Tobacco sales at pharmacies
–Soda in vending machines on city property
–Styrofoam to-go containers
*Proposed but not adopted