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Are Butterflies Wildlife? | Watts Up With That?

Opinion by Kip Hansen — 9 March 2023

Butterflies seem to be growing in popularity as the Poster Children of the environmental and climate crisis movement.  The Monarch Butterfly has been trumpeted about as being Endangered and it has even been claimed that it was declared endangered by the  IUCN. 

The truth is that the Migratory Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus), a sub-species (maybe),  has been classified by the IUCN (which is not a governmental organization) to be endangered – of course, the species itself is doing fine and lives in many parts of world and even in many parts of the United States and Mexico.  It is only the migratory phenomenon that is in danger of disappearing. 

Personal Note:  I was in central Florida for the Heartland Climate Conference two weeks ago and found I could not walk outside without seeing a Monarch Butterfly flitting around the foliage at the hotel or in my sister-in-law’s backyard.  Monarchs are alive and doing well.  The Great Monarch Migration is still in trouble, however.

Now, appearing in the once-great newspaper, the New York Times,  we find that there is a movement afoot to see that butterflies and other insects, are added to state laws concerning the right of the state to manage its wildlife.

The Times piece is written by Catrin Einhorn, on the  climate and environment beat.  She writes “Are Butterflies Wildlife? Depends Where You Live.” With a lede that reads:

A legal quirk leaves officials in at least a dozen states with little or no authority to protect insects. That’s a growing problem for humans.

Let’s be a little more exacting:  It is not a “legal quirk” that is responsible – it is the definition of “wildlife”.  Both the generally accepted definition of wildlife and the statutory definitions as well.

The Wiki leads with this:

“Wildlife refers to undomesticated animal species, but has come to include all organisms that grow or live wild in an area without being introduced by humans. Wildlife was also synonymous to game: those birds and mammals that were hunted for sport. Wildlife can be found in all ecosystems. Deserts, plains, grasslands, woodlands, forests, and other areas, including the most developed urban areas, all have distinct forms of wildlife.”

As with almost all-things-biology, the definitions are often not very helpful. “Species” itself has some 26 distinct proposed definitions – which then causes all sorts of confusion and havoc when one gets legislation such as the Endangered Species Act (two versions, here and updated and expanded here).

Einhorn states:

“…conservation officials in at least 12 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming — have their hands tied, legally speaking, when it comes to protecting insects. The creatures are simply left out of state conservation statues, or their situation is ambiguous.”

The impetus behind the “let’s worry about insect conservation” movement?  “State agencies are really at the forefront of conservation for wildlife,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, a nonprofit group that advocates for insect conservation. “But in these states where they can’t work on insects, or in some cases any invertebrates, they don’t. So, you see things just languish.”

Xereces Society, which does terrific work helping with Monarch conservation, by the way, bemoans that one quarter of the U.S. states do not include insects in their definition of wildlife to be managed by state conservation agencies — and is probably behind the push to get them included.

Einhorn quotes Ross Winton, an invertebrate biologist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: “In large part, state agencies remain focused on species that are hunted and fished, according to state workers and scientists. “I have talked to agency leadership in some states who don’t even know that an insect is an animal.”  

[That seems a rather cheap shot – I suspect that what he is talking about is that his agency leadership uses a different definition of “animals”: the statutory definition of those animals for which the Texas Parks and Wildlife department is responsible.  – kh ]

Einhorn tells us: “Some states do appear to be waking up to the plight of insects. …. A bill introduced last month in Nevada seeks to expand the definition of wildlife to include non-pest insects in need of conservation. In Colorado, a new state law has mandated a study on protecting native pollinators.”

But, can we safely say, without the bias of advocacy, that insects, in general,  have a plight that we should be addressing?  And can we agree with Einhorn that “That’s a growing problem for humans”?

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Let’s do a little thought experiment

What if states mandated that state conservation/fish and wildlife  agencies (which have a wide variety of names) take responsibility for and grant them ”authority to protect” insects.?

Would we get into a situation like we have with the Endangered Species Act?  Which requires action at taxpayers expense to protect even inconsequential species and subspecies?   Or like Nevada, only “non-pest insects”?  Or maybe “only popular insects like butterflies and bees” (but not wasps)? 

Would it produce situations in which needed development of infrastructure can be stopped by claiming it might harm some obscure insect sub-sub-species? [ see the Snail Darter controversy and why it was nonsense in the first place ]

Would it end up allowing Fish and Wildlife departments, “protecting insects”,  to wipe out whole local industries as was done over the Spotted Owl?

Would such authority require protection?  Must we protect the bark beetles which destroy forests?

Would such authority allow the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to regulate the types of flowers my wife plants in the public garden she cares for?  To regulate which, if any, insecticides she can use to protect the garden and preserve its beauty, lest they injure some rare insect?

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Laws are easy enough to pass, with enough advocacy money and effort, but very difficult to get rid of.  All laws are prone to Law Whispering, the art of lawyers “teaching old laws new tricks” – that is, creating the legal illusion that an old law can now be said to mean something entirely different or apply to many more situations than was originally intended by legislatures or that an old law can rightfully be applied in what are, to the average citizen, societally harmful ways. 

I’m sure that there are some interesting and not-harmful-to-human-interests insects that, due to new development of human housing, recreation, forestry, mining and other human activities, are losing habitat and whose populations are declining.  This is inevitable. [See Darwin – all changes produce winners and losers.]

There may be cases in which local citizens (not some bureaucrat) feel they should make sacrifices or alter planned activities for the sake of the protection of some insect.  The Monarch Butterfly offers an instance: changing the pattern and timing of the mowing of roadway verges by highway departments would allow milkweed  critical to Monarch Butterfly reproduction to flourish at important times, and not only cost nothing extra, but save money for those departments. 

So, what are the Insect Advocates doing?

Einhorn gives us an example: 

“In Utah, for example, the top insect authority is arguably Amanda Barth, an ecologist at Utah State University who leads the state’s rare insect conservation program under a 2020 memorandum of understanding with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.” …. “Ms. Barth’s position is politically delicate enough that her email signature states explicitly that she’s an employee of the university. When states move to protect insects, they often face backlash from industries like farming and development that stand to lose money.  ….  She says she has to keep it “transparent that the Division of Wildlife Resources is not acting outside of its authority by dedicating resources or personnel to this program.” [In other words, this is an extra-legal work-around contrary to legislative intent.] 

In addition to that work-around, they have created another extra-legal work-around to extend their authority through a non-governmental non-profit alliance:

“Ms. Barth leads a monarch butterfly and native pollinator working group with other Western states through the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a nonprofit group. One of the benefits: They can make suggestions about conservation of western monarchs, which have declined about 90 percent since the 1980s, that they would not have the authority to offer within their own states.”

In this last paragraph we see something common to advocacy groups in general:  sometimes they create alliances and organizations to create opportunities to act outside existing laws to influence government action – often to influence their own members, who are government employees,  to act in ways they (the government employees) themselves are not allowed to act under their own state laws.   We have this in the not-yet-extinct sue-and-settle arena. We have this in the revolving-door executives between EPA and environmental activist groups (and in some cases, industry). And nearly countless more.

Bottom Lines:

1.  There are some iconic and/or important insect species that, perhaps, should receive some attention and some action from environmental agencies.  This should be in the form of government programs that encourage, but not force, efforts to help desired species improve their populations.

2.  It is a logical fallacy to expect results different from past experience to the same action taken anew – thus it is ill-advised to grant new legal decision-making and enforcement power to government agencies operated by un-elected bureaucrats – particularly when those agencies are often headed by highly biased special interest advocates (which is often the case with Fish and Wildlife/Environmental state agencies.   

3.  Insects are, definitionally, animals.  However, it does not naturally follow that governments, at whatever level, must be empowered to protect all insects because they are in the taxonomic Kingdom: Animalia.  Granting such an idea to be true would lead to absurd results.

4.  Mankind can neither order the tides to stop rising and falling or order the natural world to stop acting in natural ways, including trying to force Nature (as a broad system) to allow a “losing” species to “win” and a “winning” species to “lose”.  As conditions change, and they are and are always changing, some species find conditions have improved for them and some species find it has become unfavorable for them.   Thus sayeth Darwin.

5.  In the larger scheme of things, insects, as a class, are the most winningest of all (with apologies).

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Author’s Comment:

Readers already know I like butterflies and any and all life forms that I find personally interesting.  I make no excuses for my biases in these choices.  I find the Monarch’s migratory behavior especially fascinating.

I support personal and community efforts to benefit pollinators of all types, as long as they are not also harmful to our agricultural interests.

For you, reader, this means pollinator and butterfly-friendly flower gardens, native milkweeds for Monarchs (if they are found in your area) and encouraging local officials to support these efforts. 

And,  please, if you find your local government (State, county, city) intending to grant more decision making and enforcement power to un-elected bureaucrats, take political action to prevent it.

Thanks for reading.

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