Butterfly Festival Takes Wing with Forum on Climate Change, Border Wall

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Yulina Alcaraz, 5, speaks with Veronica Prida after tagging and releasing a monarch butterfly.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Yulina Alcaraz, 5, speaks with Veronica Prida after tagging and releasing a monarch butterfly during the 2017 Monarch and Pollinator Festival.

As monarch butterflies make their way south through Texas and into Mexico, the third annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival kicks off Friday.

The three-day festival starts with a forum on climate change, border walls, and pesticides – all factors that affect butterflies and other pollinators. The festival includes a parade, free butterfly-tagging demonstrations, and a butterfly release on Sunday at the Pearl.

Marianna Treviño Wright, National Butterfly Center executive director, is bringing her personal fight against the federal government’s border wall project to the forum, titled “Butterflies Without Borders.” The National Butterfly Center, a wildlife sanctuary in the South Texas town of Mission, sits in the path of the planned border wall. And last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a waiver of environmental laws in the Rio Grande Valley, allowing the federal government to cut through the National Butterfly Center to build a physical barrier.

Such a move represents a threat to the environment and to migrating monarchs, Wright said.

“The thing I hear most is, ‘Butterflies can fly over the wall,’" Wright said. "That has been the general response of people.”

Although monarch butterflies can fly thousands of feet in the air, some butterflies are genetically programmed to keep low to the ground and will be blocked by the wall, Wright explained. Non-flying mammals may also be trapped by the wall and could drown when the Rio Grande floods. And then there’s the loss of native habitat, which is habitat populated by native plants and animals, untouched by human development.

“[The National Butterfly Center] is a remnant of native habitat in Texas,” she said. “Less than five percent of our native habitat remains. The majority is in the path of the border wall and will be bulldozed.”

Panelist Karen Oberhauser, director of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum, has studied monarch butterflies for more than 30 years and researches climate change’s effect on monarchs. People who observe natural phenomena are seeing big changes in small time frames, she said.

“Things are changing very rapidly now,” she said. “To have these changes occur in one person’s lifetime – and in my adult lifetime – is scary.”

Monarchs on their own don’t cause huge ecosystem-wide effects or economic change, but they still capture the public’s attention, Oberhauser said.

“They’re a species that really connects people to nature, and I think that’s very important,” she said. “People are losing those connections. To have this species that most people recognize and care about is important. So on that level, preserving monarchs is important.”

Oberhauser said she’s seeing the tail end of the monarch migration up in Wisconsin, just a few stragglers floating in the prairie. She’s looking forward to seeing the butterflies swarm in Texas when she comes south, she said.

“I’m up here in the breeding grounds, so I see the three generations up here,” Oberhauser said. “I love seeing them in Texas and Mexico because I love thinking the butterflies I’m seeing could have come from my backyard.”

For Friday's panel, Wright and Oberhauser will join Rebeca Quiñonez-Piñón, monarch outreach coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation, and Carey Gillam, author and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a group that advocates for transparency in the food system. The conversation, which will be moderated by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard, starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs until 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Pearl Stable. Tickets are $55 and available here.

Last year, about 10,000 people showed up for Sunday’s free festivities, festival organizer Monika Maeckle said. This year’s festival has expanded to include more programming related to non-monarch pollinators, including a bat event Friday night at Confluence Park that features a mezcal tasting.

“We’re also doing a bee thing on Sunday — we’re going to premiere the waggle dance,” Maeckle said. “We call it a dance, but it’s a communication move that bees do with each other where a bee finds an incredible pollinator patch and then goes to the hive to tell all the other bees, and it does a little dance where it shakes its booty and does a figure eight."

Maeckle said monarch butterflies are the “gateway bug” to get people interested in other insects and pollinators.

“It makes people pay attention, and once you get in the door, you can talk about bees and other insects,” she said.

A complete list of the weekend’s activities can be found here. Some events – such as a lunch featuring insect-based food samples hosted at the San Antonio Botanical Garden – require a ticket purchase.

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