Butterfly Sanctuary Is Heaven On Earth — And About To Be Bulldozed
"It is positively magical for people to walk through clouds of butterflies."
Sixteen years ago, people decided to set up something special near a beautiful river in Texas.
And setting something up, in this case, meant letting things be. The people at the National Butterfly Center let the trees that were growing there in the rich Rio Grande Valley keep growing. They let the wildflowers, shrubs and natural undergrowth keep blooming.
People even helped nature along on the center's one hundred protected acres, planting native flowers to encourage a wide range of butterfly species, as well as different types of birds, to come and make their homes there.
This land soon became a haven for over two hundred species of wild butterflies.
"It is positively magical for people to walk through clouds of butterflies," Marianna Wright, director of the center, told The Dodo. "None of this is artificially constructed. We are simply planting the host and the nectar plants and they [the butterflies] just appear."
But the delicate and colorfully winged creatures that create the otherworldly atmosphere of this place — and the people who are devoted to protecting them — are suddenly facing a hard reality.
"It’s stuff I never thought I would be dealing with," Wright said.
In the summer of 2017, surveyors started to show up. Wright found surveying stakes in the land. She saw contractors had started to cut down some surrounding trees and pulling up flowers.
Now it's all too clear what was happening back then, even before any plans were made official: 33 miles of an 36-foot-tall border were going to be built, adding to the nearly 700 miles of barriers already existing near the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Six of those 33 miles cut right through the butterfly sanctuary.
The butterfly sanctuary isn't the only thing at stake. The government's own scientists at the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife warned people at the U.S. Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, about the alarming impacts the construction of this wall through this ecosystem could have on all kinds of species, including those vulnerable to extinction.
Instead of heeding these warnings, they deleted them.
Not only that, the current administration decided to waive 28 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and even laws designed to contribute to human health and wellbeing, like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Among the many other extremely complicated and controversial issues surrounding the building of such a wall, what does this mean for the butterflies?
"Butterfly species are intimately tied to plant species," Wright explained. "Most people now know a monarch needs a milkweed ... It’s the same [dynamic] for every other species." Each kind of butterfly relies on one or two kinds of plants for survival, Wright pointed out: "They can’t just use anything green. If we eliminate the plant, we have effectively eliminated that species."
The butterfly center is particularly important for monarch butterflies. "We are a critical oasis for the monarchs in their migratory pathway," Wright said. "North of us and south of us are urban developments, cattle ranches and commercial farmland."
It's not just butterflies.
There are only about 50 wild ocelots left in the U.S. — in this area of Texas. By fragmenting their habitat, a wall would make it even harder for these wild cats to survive. And the Texas tortoise, another threatened species, also depends on this habitat, what to speak of the many migratory birds who stop at the butterfly center for some of their most essential life experiences.
"What’s going to happen to these species? Where are they going to nest?" Wright said. "For those butterfly species as well as all terrestrial wildlife, you have limited their ability to range for food or for a mate, for shelter or escape."
The National Butterfly Center will likely be seized through eminent domain, which allows the government to seize private property. Wright expects that the land seizure letter will go out in January. After that it will probably be just 30 days before the bulldozers arrive to clear the vegetation to excavate for the footing of the 18-foot slabs, on top of which there will be 18-foot steel posts.
The delicate nature of ecosystems entails that the disruption of a wall, which can also contribute to more extreme flooding, could be felt in wild animals for years to come.
Even though the future looks very bleak for the center, Wright still treasures the memories of seeing so many people enjoy the butterfly center over the years. The local girl scouts have even gotten to an opportunity to experience the butterfly center overnight.
"Every year we do the sleep over under the stars on the banks of the Rio Grande river," Wright said.
If the bulldozers show up early next year, 2018 might have been the last year the girl scouts could have such an experience.
"Every single animal has a role in the health of an ecosystem," Wright said. "And what is an ecosystem? It's our planet ... Everything is connected and interdependent."