More than 100 butterfly lovers descended on the border town of Mission over Halloween weekend to celebrate the annual Texas Butterfly Festival. The event marked a comeback for its host, the National Butterfly Center, which has faced threats and harassment from far-right extremists who (wrongly) believe the sanctuary is a human trafficking hotspot. The center was closed from January to April due to safety concerns.
“We reopened the National Butterfly Center on Earth Day, and this year it was really a big celebration,” recalled Marianna Treviño-Wright, director of the center.
Though festival registrations were down slightly due to the pandemic and political controversy, Treviño-Wright was excited to share her love of butterflies with dozens of new initiates. Accompanied by about 20 guides, they spent four days tracking the annual migration of monarchs and other species across South Texas.
The threats fade while the conspiracy-minded look elsewhere, but for months they overshadowed the butterfly center’s conservation work at a time when it’s more important than ever. Many scientists believe the Earth is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. A recent World Wildlife Fund report revealed that populations of all species have declined nearly 70 percent since 1970. This loss of biodiversity includes butterflies.
The festival’s keynote speech came from Matthew Forister, an ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who studies how insects survive on a warming planet with less and less wildlife habitat. Forister’s research focuses on the western states, but his findings are relevant to Texas, which shares many butterfly species with its western neighbors.
“We’re trying to understand all the stressors of modernity that affect insects,” he said, pointing to climate change, pesticides and human habitat loss as the top threats.
Forister and his collaborators examine long-term data in 11 states and have found a slow but steady decline in the populations of 450 species of butterflies. Across all species, they found that these populations have had an average of 1.6 percent fewer individual butterflies each year since 1972. While the decline may be small in any given year, as there are fewer and fewer butterflies in each generation to reproduce, the loss “really adds up over time,” he explained.
The Wandering Monarch (Danaus Plexippus Plexippus) is the most famous of these endangered butterflies. While many monarchs still travel through Texas each fall, their numbers on the West Coast have declined dramatically. In July this year, the species was classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains a global Red List of Threatened Species.
At the same time, Forister said there are at least 15-20 other butterfly species in greater decline than the monarch in his study region. “I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the case in Texas,” he said.
Against this worrying backdrop, the National Butterfly Center in Mission offers a 100-acre sanctuary for more than 200 species of butterflies, lush with milkweed, sagebrush and other plants that provide the insects with food and shelter. The Rio Grande Valley is a particularly important habitat for North America’s migratory butterfly species.
“Our little ‘Hundred Acre Wood’ started out as a commercial onion patch that we’ve been replanting for butterflies for the past 20 years,” Treviño-Wright said. Butterflies frolic there today. “They find us and come here on purpose. If you plant it, they will come,” she explained.
In return, the butterflies help the area’s native vegetation.
“Most people don’t appreciate the fact that all of our native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees are pollinated by butterflies,” Treviño-Wright said. “When the butterflies go, so do all the greens.”
The center’s popularity with these creatures isn’t just due to the work Treviño-Wright and her colleagues have done to restore hundreds of native plant species. It’s also because butterflies have lost—and continue to lose—so much habitat elsewhere in Texas to construction and farming. As a result, wildlife is forced to focus on the small, hospitable spaces that remain.
And recently, the political squabble over human migration threatened to make the National Butterfly Center collateral damage to our border disputes. Treviño-Wright fought tooth and nail in the Trump administration against plans to confiscate land from the center to build the former president’s beloved border wall. Although a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over building the wall, Congress protected the center after public outcry. All of this, in turn, was what attracted the conspiracy theorists.
Although the situation may have calmed down since then, the ongoing militarization of the border continues to disrupt the center’s work, according to Treviño-Wright. She said Border Patrol agents, vehicles and equipment are a regular sight on and around the property. In a highly publicized incident last summer, Treviño-Wright spotted a loaded M4 rifle in a Texas National Guard vehicle that was driving with no people inside and unlocked. According to the military news task & purpose, She informed border guards, who came about 45 minutes later and confiscated the rifle.
Incidents like this don’t make Treviño-Wright any safer. This is her 11th year as director of the National Butterfly Center, and she never imagined when she began that the center would end up “at the crossroads of contemporary fascism in America. … But there we find ourselves again.”
At a time of severe environmental degradation and bitter political divisions, the return of the Texas Butterfly Festival offers hope for insects and humans alike. For Matthew Forister, the event provided a welcome insight into how many people value butterflies and other wildlife.
“As researchers ourselves, we are very focused on our study sites and working with our data. It’s always really encouraging to see just a lot of average people who know their butterflies and care deeply about them,” he said.
There are things average people can do to help. Forister pointed out that reducing the use of pesticides both in individual gardens and in the crop supply chain is a relatively simple action. Tackling more complex problems – like climate change and the spread of human settlements, agriculture and industry – may be more difficult, but it’s worth the effort.
Many of the butterflies Forister saw at the National Butterfly Center are common species in Texas, but as a Nevadan, they were new to him. “Everything I saw was very special to me,” he said. Whether humans have seen a particular species of butterfly millions of times or whether they know absolutely nothing about it, all living things have an inherent value, he stressed: “All wild organisms deserve attention and conservation and protection, in my opinion.”