There is an op-ed in today's New York Times about Commercial Butterflies - Butterfly Kiss-Off by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, a natural sciences professor at the University of Wyoming.
I guess this issue has been around for awhile because I googled it and found an article written in 1998 by the National Wildlife Federation.
It sort of reminds me of the ladybug problem and the release balloons mixed together. We had terrible infestation problems at a log cabin that we used to live in from Asian Ladybugs that have been sold in the US to kill aphids - as an organic gardening method. While I think that organic gardening is great and we need to do what we can to to reduce pesticide use - what has happened is that we have bought pesticides to deal with the ladybugs because other people introduced them to our ecosystem and they became pests without any natural predators. The alternative was to have 1000's of ladybugs flying and crawling around the house. It was not doable.
The release of helium balloons looks like a wonderful thing. Balloons don't look deadly. But eventually many of the balloons fall and drop into the ocean where some form of sealife eats it and dies. The balloon releaser does not see that part of it. And when you get these giant releases all over the place - and at commercial ventures like the Indianapolis 500 - as well as back-yard parties - it adds up to lots of balloons and lots of deaths.
And so it goes for butterflies. People like to realease them at weddings. People like to raise them and watch their life cylce. It seems that there could not be too many butterflies. And that it wouldn't hurt if commercial growers helped them out. Lockwood suggests that there could be 11 million released a year.
In the '98 article 40,000 was the estimate for monarchs being released.
"Butterfly suppliers say some opponents of the trade may be letting emotions get in the way. "Some people just don't like the idea of butterflies being commercialized," says Sheri Moreau of The Butterfly Conservancy in California. "I estimate less than 40,000 artificially raised monarchs were released last year to join a monarch population of over 150 million--hardly a statistical blip in the total population."
Now - 8 years later - Lockwood writes:
"Their primary concern is the release of butterflies from one locale into a different region. Federal regulations prohibit the shipments to states where a species doesn’t naturally occur, as if Long Island was the same ecological system as Albany.
The butterfly association also raises the concern that interbreeding of otherwise separate populations could cause genetic deterioration of endemic varieties that have adapted to local conditions and warp migratory behaviors. In principle, the farm-raised butterflies may also carry unfamiliar strains of pathogens, although diseased larvae rarely survive to adulthood.
A less plausible concern is that the released individuals will compete with the natives for food; nectar is rarely in short supply. But the feeding of the subsequent generation is a more complicated issue: painted ladies larvae eat thistles, which include both nasty, invasive weeds and endangered species."
Lockwood suggests only releasing sterile adult butterflies. And for teachers and classes to find their own caterpilars and raise them "a savvy teacher could work with students to collect local caterpillars, raise them and release the butterflies whence they came. "
Some schools are doing more to create ecosystems that are favorable to butterflies and wildlife - that is where I think the answer lies. Less mown fertilzed and pesticided lawns - and more unmown wildflower meadows - as part of the school grounds. A lot of places have much in the way of mown lawns that are not part of the area where people are playing softball or something and are not used at all. I see no sense in that.
Other than that - it would make sense to regulate where the butterflies are shipped - as in the grower who would not send Eastern monarchs to a Western State. I am not convinced that as long as the grower were to raise butterflies locally and sell them locally - that it would be a problem. (That's not how modern commerce operates these days, though - people expect to ship them all over).
Some places are becoming so generic - like vast areas of farmland growing corn crops - that it hardly seems that there is a local ecosystem left to protect. I live where there is lots of wild areas. But there are still people who mow grass just because they like the look of it. I like the look of butterfles flying around because there is stuff for them to eat.