Why San Francisco May Ban Certain Butterflies

The city is weighing the nation's first ban on releasing commercially bred species

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Kerri Wile

A newly emerged monarch butterfly alights on a branch.

San Francisco is often on the cutting edge—especially when it comes to banning things. In recent years, the city became the first major metro to outlaw plastic bags, unsolicited phone books and toys in fast food meals. Now, following a meeting of the city’s environmental commission this week, it seems butterflies may be next.

The seven-member Commission on the Environment heard testimony about the dangers of releasing commercially bred butterflies into the wild, something that people may do to celebrate weddings or loved ones at funerals, as well as raise awareness about diseases like breast cancer.

The commission called on Amber Hasselbring, executive director of nonprofit ecology organization Nature in the City, to talk about the effects on the butterflies themselves. She says that what may seem like a beautiful gesture can leave the animals at an arbitrary spot where they’ll never “find the right conditions to support the rest of their life cycle.” Even if they do, the butterflies may spread diseases or genetic weaknesses they have as the result of being “mass produced,” she says.

Sending farm-bred beauties into the air may also interfere with observation of naturally occurring populations and their migration patterns, Hasselbring says. In Santa Cruz’ Natural Bridges State Beach, for instance, park officials are currently counting the masses of monarch butterflies that are wintering there during an annual journey south.

Representatives from the commercial butterfly industry have scoffed at the potential ban, saying that their sales actually bolster the populations and awareness of the insects. “People are just going to order butterflies anyway,” Dale McClung, a spokesman for the International Butterfly Breeders Association, told the San Francisco Examiner, emphasizing that a ban would be difficult to enforce.

Advocates of a ban also feel a moral opposition to any business that breeds animals and ships them off to be used in ceremonies, whether doves or butterflies or any other creature. Shops sell monarch butterflies “by the dozen” for prices around $85, meaning each butterfly goes for about $7. For Hasselbring, the trade amounts to the animals being “objectified and treated like party favors.” There are more “environmentally sensitive ways we can celebrate,” she says.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the exporting and importing of animals, already has some rules on the books that regulate interstate shipment of live butterflies. But if San Francisco forbids the release of all commercially raised butterflies, it will be another first in the nation. The environmental commission approved a resolution supporting a ban. To make it law, the city’s Board of Supervisors will have to consider and approve it, too.