Let’s talk a bit about butterflies. As if you don’t have better things to do. But the fate of butterflies has all to do with some heavy issues, such as criminal law, extinction and “de-extinction” of species, and even the farming of super-strong crops. Here’s how these all come together to give us much to think about.
Butterfly populations worldwide are declining fast. So much so, in fact, that a British court last week convicted one of their citizens of netting and killing a protected butterfly known as the “Large Blue” (Maculinea Arion), an insect that, as all butterflies, tastes with its feet, with a wing design that is a work of art, something akin to an expressionist painting. Sadly, from a global perspective, Large Blues can no longer be found almost anywhere.
As both the BBC and the New York Times report it, British bobbies actually made a warrant search of the culprit’s home, seizing two dead, illegally possessed Large Blues among hundreds of butterfly carcasses, each carefully encased in glass. The accused was arrested. He was engaging in the otherwise lawful, Victorian-era hobby of collecting and selling these insects. Large Blues, however, fetch $400. in the law-breaking world of collectors of endangered insects and other disappearing animals. Added to this evidence from the butterfly raid was a witness’s photos of the chap’s netting one in a park; the conviction after the trial was never in doubt. He faces up to six months in jail at sentencing next month.
We have our own perishing butterfly species here in North America. One of the world’s great migrations, ranking in nature with such annual, thousand mile, mass travels as those of caribou, wildebeest, whales and more, is the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus Plexippus) from North America to Mexico. While all species, including the Monarch, fluctuate in their numbers, the Monarchs’ numbers have all but crashed.
Lately, the Mexican government has partnered with the non-profit World Wildlife Fund to preserve in their country the Monarchs’ southerly, overwintering acreage. Up in North America, however, the U.S. and Canada need to act on saving the Monarchs’ singular food supply, but don’t.
Taking a big hit is the Monarch’s food and nesting source, the wildflower known as milkweed. Consider how we’ve become remarkably skilled at creating super crops with genetically modified organisms. Especially in the Midwest, but here on the North Fork as well, GMO corn, for example, suffers no harm from the strongest weed killers. While GMO corn crops can grow through hefty herbicide applications, millions of acres of perennial milkweed once common near farms have died fast. The very cultivation of farmland, along with our backyards, dooms these perennials as well? Thus, up to an incredible 150 million acres of milkweed in the U.S. have disappeared, according to monarchwatch.org.
As for Mexico, their National Commission of Protected Areas finally stopped the Monarchs’ overwintering forest from being cleared, thanks to the lobbying efforts of WWF. This commission tells us that Monarchs overwinter on a total of only 2 to 6 acres these days, far below the 50,000 in Mexico they had used for millennia.
Meanwhile, pesticides have made colossal, toxic strides in their chemical makeup, and their intensified use worldwide, together with climate change, has virtually done in butterfly and other pollinating insects. Bayer Corp of Germany, and Monsanto Corp will soon merge into a agrochemical behemoth, poised to expand their mass production of an extinction-causing brew known as “neonic” pesticides. The dangerous effect on humans has not been studied virtually at all, but neonics are irrefutably connected with the sharp decline in bees the world over. Endangering pollinators in turn endangers human and animal food supplies.
Meanwhile, natural and human forces have combined to endanger a multitude of species. Large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are dead. Dr. Joseph Bennett of the Carleton University of Ontario concludes, with many scientists in agreement, that elephants may be extinct in the wild in less than 50 years.
Zoos offer morbid reprieve, witness the rare rhino found dead one recent morning at a French wildlife park, its horn sawed off by poachers. In fact, zookeepers in Europe and Africa have begun to “dehorn” rhinos in captivity to insure them against a similar fate: a painless procedure for the rhino, but pathetic testimony to nature’s hopeless battle with “civilization.”
In the current issue of Nature, scientists herald how close they are coming to resurrecting extinct species, such as the Passenger Pigeon and other birds, even the prehistoric Woolly Mammoth. Though on its face this has the romantic appeal of reversing past wrongs, it does nothing to prevent future extinctions. It presents a compelling ethical issue: such “de-extinction” means spending limited resources for maintaining revived species and their habitats at the expense of countless existing species suffering worldwide stress. It could well reduce incentives for traditional conservation. And what perverse outcomes would emerge from reintroducing long absent species?
Each of us has to persist in fighting the rising disappearance of biodiversity in our and our children’s world. Certainly we can strive to reduce our carbon, and water, footprints. But planting trees and native species of plants, and boycotting GMO food crops, are necessary but small steps.
Supporting, including donating, even in small but regular, tax deductible amounts, to private organizations dedicated to environmental advocacy right in our region can make a real difference. The North Fork Environmental Council, Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society are just three with a strong, local presence.
But think worldwide as well, with such able groups as the WWF, the Nature Conservancy, the Rainforest Alliance, the Wilderness Society, the Ocean Conservancy, and so many others that have collective strength, and make true headway in saving species and their habitats. Study them on-line to understand their vital role, and consider contributing to their invaluable work. There is even one – the National Resources Defense Council, based in Virginia – dedicated to saving bees and standing up to the Bayer-Monsanto madness. These are only some. And mind you, this columnist, and this publication, have no connection to these groups. They are mentioned here strictly as options, and heroically effective ones at that.
The loss of the Large Blue and Monarch butterflies emphatically presents forward indicators of far greater losses in all ecosystems. We have to bring our stewardship of this tormented world to a new level. Otherwise, extinction will occur time and again, with the gruesome finality of a hangman’s trap door.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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