Fugitive Colors

A true crime story about... poached butterflies?

Editor’s Note: This story is from Orion’s Spring issue, 1997. We are unlocking this archive piece to celebrate the release of The Book of Bugs, on sale now. 


ON JUNE 4, 1992, a man calling himself John Boudreaux arrived at a house in Redwood City, California, to take delivery on an illicit purchase. It wasn’t drugs; it wasn’t guns; it wasn’t child pornography. It was butterflies.

The seller was Richard J. Skalski, a skilled lepidopterist—that is, a student and collector of butterflies and moths. To call Skalski an “amateur lepidopterist” would be misleading if it implied that he never accepted payment, but at any rate he was an avocational one, not a full-time professional. He held a bachelor’s degree in entomology, though he had disliked the academic grind, and he now made his living as an exterminatot for the Crane Pest Control company, presumably attending more to cockroaches than to pestiferous butterflies. Meanwhile he did his collecting, rearing, trading, and selling of specimens on the side. What John Boudreaux had come to him for was one pair of Kaibab swallowtails. Formally known as Papilio indra kaibabensis, the Kaibab swallowtail is a severely localized subspecies native only to northern Arizona, a rare form and therefore especially prized by collectors of a certain bent. One of the very few sites where P. i. kaibabensis occurs is at Roaring Springs, a small feeder canyon in the northeastern part of Grand Canyon National Park, within the boundaries of which all butterflies—all wildlife—are protected by federal law. The pair of P. i. kaibabensis awaiting Boudreaux were dead, spread, mounted on pins, and in pristine condition. They bore collection labels reading “Roaring Springs.”

The agreed purchase price, $400, had been paid by mail. The buyer, according to Skalski’s understanding, was not John Boudreaux himself but a person named Paul Wright, of Boise, Idaho. This fellow Wright had written to Skalski several months earlier, introducing himself as “an amateur lepidopterist specializing in swallowtails,” with an interest in buying specimens of P. i. kaibabensis and several other rarities. The $400 price Skalski had quoted in response may have been slightly inflated by his perception that Paul Wright was a gullible neophyte. But it wasn’t grossly inflated, since Skalski had recently offered a pair of P. i. kaibabensis at $300 to one of his more knowledgeable contacts. Accepting Skalski’s terms, Wright had written that his brother-in-law, John Boudreaux, could pick up the specimens during a business trip to northern California. Boudreaux arrived and the deal was consummated.

“I hope he’s happy with these,” Skalski said. “They’re from the type location.” The type locality (a technical term slightly corrupted in Skalski’s version) is the site from which the type specimen (the one specimen filed away in a museum or other collection as paradigmatic of the species) was collected.

“Oh, great,” said Boudreaux, making no pretense of strong interest or expertise himself.

“Right down in Roaring Springs,” Skalski said.

“Oh, wow.”

“The data is on all the labels,” Skalski said.

We know their exact words because John Boudreaux, who in reality was Special Agent John G. Mendoza of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was wearing a wire. The transcript of the conversation is now on record as exhibit 194b in case CR 93 20137, heard by a federal district judge in San Jose. Paul Wright of Boise, like Boudreaux, was a Active being.

Butterflies can’t sting but the Fish and Wildlife Service can, and this was one of those moments.

 

THE KAIBAB SWALLOWTAIL is a somber black butterfly with short tails and a row of blue daubs on each hind wing, each row accentuated by a single red dot. The daubs resemble blue tongues of flame on a gas burner in a darkened kitchen. They’re pretty. But they’re not pretty enough to hint at the perfervid covetousness that P. i. kaibabensis aroused in Richard Skalski, who at one point wrote to a fellow lepidopterist, “I’ve gone ga-ga over this exquisite butterfly.” The exquisiteness is subtle. Seeing it in a specimen box full of gaudier swallowtails and giant owl-eyed moths, you or I would pass over a Kaibab swallowtail as a lesser wonder, not recognizing its true value. The true value of a butterfly? Isn’t that a subjective matter? All right, for simplicity let’s say its market value. Better still, its black market value. The true value of a pair of Kaibab swallowtails, either dead on their pins or alive in their native environs, is in fact a point of controversy at the heart of this peculiar case. When a species of butterfly is drastically rare, what’s the best way of paying due respect? By collecting it lovingly, hoarding it, treating it as an inanimate treasure, or by defending it on the wing with all the force of criminal law? Richard Skalski had his answer, and Special Agent Mendoza had his.

Even the color of P. i. kaibabensis is in one sense a subjective matter, dependent on the beholder’s point of view. A close look shows those gas-burner daubs of blue to be faintly iridescent. Still closer inspection reveals that the blueness itself is an intricate optical effect produced by tiny prismatic ridges on the butterfly’s wing scales. That is, it’s not a reflection of blue pigment. It’s a trick of the light.

The same sort of tricky blueness shows up in many butterflies—rare swallowtails from the Moluccas, giant birdwings from New Guinea, satiny morphos from South America, and an entire tribe of closely related species, including thirty-two that are native to North America, all known collectively (and descriptively) as the blues. In each of those butterflies the blue effect is produced not straightforwardly, by pigmentation, but more elaborately, by a corduroy surface of minute refractive structures built into each individual wing scale. These structures divide light into a rainbow of separate components. The component waves carom off other structural surfaces, to be reassembled with the help of a principle known as interference; then they’re reflected outward again, now intensified at a particular wave length but dampered away at others. The result is a shimmery iridescent blueness that changes its texture and hue according to the angle from which the butterfly is illuminated or seen. The iridescent greens and metallic silvers also displayed by some butterflies are produced the same way—not by green or silver pigments, but by microscopic involutions of scale structure.

Scientists refer to these as structural colors. An alternative term is interference colors. Robert Michael Pyle, author of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies and a highly respected lepidopterist, has his own preferred term. Borrowing a usage from fine art, Pyle calls them fugitive colors.

 

FIVE DAYS AFTER the sale of the Kaibab swallowtails, Special Agent Mendoza returned to Richard Skalski’s house with a search warrant. Accompanying him were two other agents, a wildlife inspector armed with a camera, and Chris Nagano, an entomologist also employed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, with special lepidopterological expertise. They searched the house, finding it filled with a vast collection of butterflies, some tropical and spectacular, some American and rare, some listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. They also searched a backyard shed, where they discovered a refrigerator containing dozens of live swallowtail pupae (the dormant intermediate stage between caterpillar and adult) laid out like mummies in neat rows. Skalski’s main method of acquiring Kaibab swallowtails, it seems, was to collect live caterpillars off their preferred food plant in the Roaring Springs area, spirit the caterpillars away in Tupperware containers, and rear them through the pupal stage to adulthood at his home. This had given him the world’s preeminent collection of the subspecies, and his specimens were extraordinarily fine, their wings never having been smudged by the touch of a net. While the agents gathered evidence, Skalski conceded (according to court documents that haven’t been contested in a trial) that he knew “it was illegal take butterflies from national parks, but I did it anyway.” Mendoza and his colleagues seized eighty-seven specimens of P. i. kaibabensis, as well as a number of other butterflies, an address file, and an assortment of notes and letters documenting the capture, exchange, and sale of butterflies. Among the letters were some that led toward two kindred souls: Thomas W. Krai, in Tucson, and Marc L. Grinnell, just north of the Bay area in Santa Rosa.

Mendoza and Nagano appeared at Thomas Krai’s house with a search warrant on June 25. Here they found tens of thousands more butterflies, most of which were innocent of legal implications but some of which were suspect. Again they seized a select sample, including nineteen specimens of the Uncompahgre fritillary, an endangered species known only from a few mountaintops in southwestern Colorado.

It was Krai’s files of correspondence that put them on the track of Grinnell, who got his own visit from Mendoza and Nagano about a week later.

The investigation continued for more than a year. Then in December 1993, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the northern district of California filed an indictment charging the three men with conspiracy to violate the wildlife laws of the United States—specifically, the Endangered Species Act and another statute known as the Lacey Act. Skalski, Krai, and Grinnell stood accused of conspiring to “knowingly take, deliver, receive, transport, ship, sell and purchase, and offer to sell and purchase” certain species listed as endangered and threatened, and also to take and traffic in certain other species protected within national parks, national wildlife refuges, and various other categories of statutorily conserved land. The sites ranged from Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, in Alaska, and Olympic National Park, west of Seattle, eastward to Everglades National Park and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, in Florida, and Baxter State Park, in Maine. The one conspiracy count was supported by a list of 240 “overt acts” specifying what the three men had allegedly done.

Many of the overt acts involved self-incriminating passages from seized correspondence. For instance, Krai had written to Skalski on November 25, 1984, concerning the need to be cagey when collecting in parks and refuges: “Myself, I use the BioQuip pocket Net—known as the ‘National Park Special’ for thse [sic] tricky spots & never collect within sight of anyone even those who don’ [sic] look the least bit suspicious.” Skalski had written to Krai in the same vein, with advice on collecting Kaibab swallowtails: “What can I say about the Grand Canyon National Park? WATCH OUT!! Rangers are everywhere as are the spies…. The law of the parks is very clear. ‘DON’T TOUCH’ Your best bet is to go to Roaring and hike up a small canyon and look there.” In another letter, Krai had bragged to Skalski: “I myself got caught collecting in Floridas everglades N.P. and twice in Loxahatchee N.W.R. but got away with it each time, simply claiming ignorance of the laws.” Marc Grinnell seems to have been a peripheral player, but he had written to Krai about his own interest in collecting Kaibab swallowtails from the Grand Canyon, and signed himself, “Yours in Crime, Marc,” sounding somewhat more sophomoric than nefarious.

When a species of butterfly is drastically rare, what’s the best way of paying due respect? By collecting it lovingly, hoarding it, treating it as an inanimate treasure, or by defending it on the wing with all the force of criminal law? 

This indictment, and particularly its application of the Lacey Act, caught the notice of professional butterfly researchers and avocational collectors across America, causing a welter of strong reactions. Those reactions included outrage toward the defendants, outrage toward the Fish and Wildlife Service, demonizing of Special Agent Mendoza, impatience with government regulation, worry, sadness, cold feet, and confusion. In a phrase: consternation among the butterflies. The Endangered Species Act was one thing, easily and gladly complied with, but the Lacey Act seemed to cover a large gray area of not-uncommon activities lying between the black of unscrupulous collecting and the white of impeccable innocence. Lepidopterists were upset because nobody knew where, and upon whom, the federal net might come down next.

 

ALTHOUGH MOST PEOPLE have never heard of it, the Lacey Act holds an important place in the history of American conservation law. Originally passed in 1900, it was, by one account, “the first clear assertion of federal authority over wildlife.” Michael J. Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund, in his book The Evolution of National Wildlife Law, has called it “the cornerstone of federal efforts to conserve wildlife through the regulation of commerce.”

In its original form, the Lacey Act had two distinct provisions: It reaffirmed wildlife-conservation efforts at the state level, by prohibiting interstate commerce in any “wild animals or birds” killed in violation of a state law, and it prohibited importation of exotic species (mongooses and fruit bats were singled out, along with starlings) that might become agricultural pests. The first of those provisions reflected timely concern that America was losing some of its wildlife treasures to unbridled market hunting. The passenger pigeon had gone from unimaginable abundance to near extinction by 1900, and so had the bison. Although the phrase “wild animals or birds” now seems confused and ambiguous, for decades there was consensus that it meant fur-bearing mammals and game birds. Later amendments would enlarge and clarify the phrase.

In 1926 the Black Bass Act was passed, giving similar protection to some species of fish. In 1935 the Lacey Act was amended to extend its interstate-commerce prohibition to mammals or birds killed in violation of a federal law or a law of any foreign country. Then, just sixteen years ago, both the Lacey and the Black Bass acts were replaced by a rewritten version, known as the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981, that stretched federal coverage still further, prohibiting the import, export, transport, sale, purchase, or acquisition of any “fish or wildlife” taken in violation of a federal law, state law, Indian tribal law, foreign law, or treaty. One federal law that had been passed in the meantime was the Endangered Species Act of 1973; one tteaty ratified was the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also dating from 1973. The Lacey Act as amended in 1981 gives secondary support to both. The amended version also allows stiffer sentences—a maximum fine of $20,000 and a maximum jail sentence of five years for each count. Most significantly, its protective embrace is extended to additional kinds of animals, with “fish or wildlife” now defined as “any wild animal, whether alive or dead, including without limitation any wild mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish, mollusk, crustacean, arthropod, coelenterate, or other invertebrate,” therefore including butterflies, which are arthropods. Derived from a basis that’s more scientific than sentimental, the amended Lacey Act stipulates the same statutory protection for small, cold-blooded, unpopular creatures that’s given to bears, owls, ferrets, cranes, and other favored fauna. It also covers plants. If they’re endangered or threatened, lay off. If they’re resident within a national park or some other sort of protected area, lay off. Being small and cold-blooded yet popular, butterflies were among the easiest invertebrates to welcome aboard this expanded legal ark.

Butterflies, though, aren’t the first or the only group beyond birds and mammals to figure in a Lacey Act prosecution. In the mid-1970s, a Philadelphia-based reptile dealer named Henry Molt stood trial, his subsequent appeals yielding decisions that helped clarify the scope of the act. And in 1994 a Californian named Stephen Earl Cook was convicted of smuggling and selling live specimens of the Mexican red-kneed tarantula, Brachypelma smithi, an endangered species under Mexican law. Why smuggle tarantulas? Because people will buy them as pets. Why do people want them as pets? You tell me.

Cook had brought 600 of these hefty spiders over the border (presumably not all in one trip—if so, it’s a scary thought), cramped into deli containers in his suitcases. He sold them to animal dealers for thirty or forty bucks apiece. That was the wholesale trade; the estimated street value of a Mexican red-kneed tarantula in southern California, it may surprise you to learn, is about $200. By straightforward arithmetic, therefore, Cook had amassed $120,000 worth of merchandise while making this jeopardized species still more jeopardized in its native habitat. Tried under the Lacey Act and convicted on five counts, he was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison, the longest sentence evet given for violating a U.S. wildlife law.

 

One criticism raised recently against the Fish and Wildlife Service is that their enforcement people have paid inordinate attention to butterfly collecting and trafficking simply because butterflies are charming to the public. Spotted cats, parrots, butterflies—sure, everybody likes them, and so poachers can easily be made to seem villainous. But isn’t the FWS (so goes the criticism) devoting too much of its zeal and its limited resources to creatures that seem lovely or cute? John Doggett, chief of the FWS enforcement division, cites the Stephen Earl Cook case as evidence against that notion, and if you’ve ever looked a Mexican red-kneed tarantula in the face you’ll concede that Doggett has a point.

Meanwhile, about the same time Richard Skalski and his Kaibab swallowtails were coming to the attention of Special Agent Mendoza, another case involving the Lacey Act and butterflies was developing in Wisconsin. The target of this investigation was Charles A. Kondor, an insect importer and dealer who carried on a sizable trade in tropical beetles and butterflies, selling them (mostly into the decorative curio market, it seems, not to serious collectors) through a business he called Creative Arts Unlimited. Importing and selling tropical beetles and butterflies isn’t necessarily illegal, so long as customs regulations are satisfied and the insects in question aren’t protected by the Endangered Species Act, the CITES treaty, or a law in the country of origin; but if they are so protected, then they’re also protected by the Lacey Act. Many of Kondor’s insects were so protected. In September 1993, Fish and Wildlife Service agents raided his residence with a search warrant, finding thousands of butterflies and beetles from Brazil, Colombia, Malaysia, and other tropical countries. The agents seized so much suspect material that they had to rent a Mayflower van to haul it away. Oddly, Kondor continued operating about as he had been, and a year later both his house and a retail store in a nearby mall were searched under warrant again. The total confiscated evidence amounted to 30,000 specimens of endangered or otherwise contraband species, with an estimated wholesale value of $90,000. Included among Kondor’s impressive inventory were some protected Brazilian morphos and a half dozen specimens of Ornithoptera priamus urvillianus, a splendid violet-and-black birdwing from the Solomon Islands region, covered by the CITES treaty. Waiving indictment, Kondor accepted a plea bargain that allowed him to plead guilty to just one count of smuggling but specified his admission of the Lacey Act offenses and others. In light of the list of admissions as well as the smuggling count, he was sentenced to five months in prison.

Still another case emerged in July of 1995, when John W. Kemner, Jr. was indicted in McAllen, TX for illegally importing insects collected illegally in Mexico. This ninecount indictment accused Kemner of having smuggled 4,225 moths, beetles, and butterflies from Mexico into Texas between 1990 and 1992, all in violation of the Lacey Act as well as customs law. Among the most lucrative species Kemner allegedly handled was the Esperanza swallowtail, Pterourus esperanza, endangered in Mexico and capable of bringing $1,000 in the U.S. for a single specimen.

The Esperanza swallowtail, like the Kaibab, carries a subtler visual appeal than a birdwing or a morpho. Black with yellow bands down the wings, it roughly resembles the tiger swallowtail, one of the most common swallowtails in North America. Who would pay $ 1,000 for the dried body of a black-and-yellow butterfly that mutedly echoes something common? Only a person knowledgeable enough to know precisely how rare it is and, in this case, precisely how formidable are the legal sanctions against catching it, killing it, transporting it, selling it, buying it. Maybe the frisson of illegality in the act of purchase itself is a perverse part of the value received. Anyway, there are such customers—not many, but some. Like most forms of human endeavor, butterfly collecting has its zone of criminal excess that certain individuals find irresistible.

 

THESE CRIMINAL EXCESSES have come to public attention at an unfortunate time for conscientious lepidopterists, many of whom already worry that butterfly collecting, which was long stereotyped as an innocent pastime for outdoorsy nerds, is becoming both technically illegal and broadly despised. Maybe the change was signaled offhandedly by John Fowles’s novel The Collector, published in 1963, with its chilling portrait of a butterfly-collecting nerd who is anything but innocent. On a broader scope, we all know that the mood of the times has put blood sports, cruelty to animals, and the more obviously consumptive forms of resource enjoyment into disfavor (a shallow disfavor, I’d argue, flawed with a lot of hypocrisy), and the mood has extended its glower to butterfly collecting, now regarded in roughly the same light as bullbaiting, cockfighting, lionhunting, harpooning belugas, killing snakes because they’re snakes, or pulling the wings off grasshoppers for amusement. Butterfly collecting isn’t precisely a blood sport (most collectors kill their specimens either with poison fumes in a jar or else by putting them into a freezer), but society at large has begun to detect (or hallucinate) blood stains on lepidopterists’ hands.

“If you go out in Britain with a butterfly net today,” says Bob Pyle, the author and scientist who speaks about fugitive colors, “you’re liable to get whomped over the head with an umbrella.”

Germany, for another instance, now has very stringent laws restricting butterfly collecting. And in the United States, Pyle adds, the recent busts and investigations have had “a very chilling effect” on lepidopterists—not just avocational collectors but also professional entomologists. Beyond the purely legal concerns, beyond the Lacey Act prosecutions and a set of recently tightened regulations governing import and export of specimens loaned for scientific purposes, there’s a new public attitude toward what lepidopterists do.

Many other lepidopterists I’ve talked to agree with Pyle’s sense that butterfly collecting has fallen, unfairly, into disrepute. “It’s being made to seem like it’s some kind of perversion,” complains Felix Sperling, a research entomologist who runs a molecular lab at Berkeley and who has collected butterflies since his boyhood. “This business of sticking pins through insects.”

Sperling was one of the two young lepidopterists who, during a larkish hike to the top of Colorado’s Mount Uncompahgre in 1978, discovered a new species that eventually became recognized as the Uncompahgre fritillary. Though the public may now choose to see butterfly collecting as retrograde or perverse, he argues, in fact it’s “potentially a very useful thing.” Case in point: If Sperling and his partner, Larry Gall of Yale University, hadn’t collected specimens of the strangely unfamiliar fritillary they saw that day, they wouldn’t have been able to establish its discrete identity as a species. But now that it’s recognized by science—as Boloria acrocnema, confined to patches of snow willow at 13,000 feet on a few Colorado mountaintops and listed as an endangered species—its habitat is being protected and its prospects of survival are somewhat better. Sperling says that butterfly collectors today are frustrated and angry, not just defensive, because “we feel like we’re doing something valuable.” Besides identifying new species, they chart geographical distributions of known species and compile species lists for given localities, data that help society to make well-informed conservation decisions. Furthermore, it’s amateur butterfly collectors, not professional entomologists, who do the major part of this work.  But the legal hurdles they face have increased by an order of magnitude, according to Sperling.

There are a number of psychological angles to the question of why people collect butterflies, and a number of legal and ethical angles to the question of whether or nor they should. For example, does a bounteous butterfly collection constitute, in the collector’s mind, a form of imaginary wealth? If butterfly collectors trade rare specimens to one another at generally agreed-on rates of exchange (one pair of Kaibab swallowtails being equivalent to a pair of such-and-such birdwing, or three pairs of such-and-such morpho, or ten pairs of such-and-such fritillary), hasn’t the collecting community essentially converted butterflies into a private form of currency, no more illogical than silver or gold coinage? And if that’s so, shouldn’t butterfly trading be construed as commerce under the Lacey Act? In the ethical dimension, the issues worth pondering might include whether butterfly collecting is any more reprehensible than swatting mosquitoes or stepping on ants, and whether anyone except a strict Jainist is entitled to sneer at the fact that it involves killing animals. Intriguing as those angles may be, though, I don’t mean to explore them here. The many-angled question that interests me more concerns the biological side of the subject: Is collecting a threat to the survival of butterfly species?

A serious lepidopterist might take two or three dozen specimens of this or that butterfly, so as to have a scientifically revealing series showing genetic variation within the species. A greedy lepidopterist might take five or six dozen specimens, so as to have trading stock of a prized species with which to barter for other rarities. Is collecting at that level detrimental to the health of wild populations? Does it contribute to the worldwide decline of biological diversity? Are we losing rare butterflies from the roster of living things because collectors are loving them to extinction? One respected authority on the issue is Bob Pyle.

Pyle is a late-fortyish man with long whitening hair, a whitening beard, bright eyes of which the blue is not fugitive, and the body of a linebacker with a lifelong appreciation for good ales and pilsners. You would never mistake him for a nerd; in his field clothes, he looks more like Santa Claus dressed for a vigorous walking safari. He carries an old, beat-up net that he calls Marsha, a trusty tool made from a knobbly cottonwood shaft, a hoop of wire, a clamp, some salvaged curtain material, and a few wraps of duct tape. Pyle grew up in Colorado collecting butterflies and has been a member of the Lepidopterists’ Society since 1959. He took a Ph.D. at Yale under the eminent lepidopterist Charles Remington, after having spent a Fulbright year in England studying butterfly conservation, and served as a consultant to the government of Papua New Guinea on the matter of farming birdwings for export. He also did a stint as chairman of the Lepidoptera Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, based in Switzerland. He has been writing about butterfly conservation, in scientific journals and popular magazines as well as in his books, since 1967. Besides these qualifications, Pyle is the founder of the Xerces Society, the first international organization dedicated to the conservation of rare invertebrates and their habitats. The society’s name commemorates the Xerces blue, Glaucopsyche xerces, a delicate azure-winged species formerly native to the San Francisco peninsula. It’s now extinct.

If butterfly collectors trade rare specimens to one another at generally agreed on rate s of exchange hasn’t the collecting community essentially converted butterflies into a private form of currency, no more illogical than silver or gold coinage?

The Xerces blue wasn’t killed off by butterfly collectors. It was killed off by humans of all stripe who appropriated and transformed its habitat. That makes it emblematic, as Bob Pyle well knew when he adopted the name.

In Pyle’s view, collecting is generally no threat to the survival of butterfly species or populations. Why not? Because butterflies are so urgently prolific—the females of most species can lay hundreds of eggs—that even heavyish collecting represents an insignificant toll on the inherent demographic redundancy. Many tiers of individuals are always available, destined to be eliminated by predators, competition among themselves, or the finitude of their habitat, if not by butterfly collectors. An exception would be a case like the Uncompahgre fritillary, an extremely rare species with drastically limited habitat; yes, collecting might actually threaten it. But in most cases, no. What’s discouraging about the notion that butterfly collecting could push a species to the brink of extinction, Pyle says, is that “it’s so deeply ignorant of the facts of entomology.”

If you really want to see what’s killing the planet’s butterflies, he adds, look at human population growth as the driving first cause. Then look at habitat destruction. Look at timbercutting and grazing abuses, look at agricultural transformations of the landscape, look at bad fire-management policies, look at suburban sprawl. Look at fancy chemicals sprayed over thousands of square miles. While you’re at it, look at garden pesticides too. And look at the radiator of your car. “Automobiles are vastly more efficient at collecting butterflies than any butterfly collector could possibly be.” In effect what Pyle’s saying is: Look at the wider world, and into the mirror, before pointing your finger at a few hobbyists with nets.

At the same time, he acknowledges that collecting too can be pushed to pernicious excess. “There are kinds of collecting that are no longer appropriate, if they ever were. You don’t collect endangered species. You don’t import butterflies in contravention of foreign countries’ laws.” The Lepidopterists’ Society, he notes, has promulgated a code of appropriate collecting behavior that is widely embraced.

I ask him if it’s true, as Thomas Krai has argued, that Krai himself, Richard Skalski, and Marc Grinnell were only charged with doing things that virtually all American lepidopterists do.

“That’s bullshit,” says Dr. Pyle.

 

THE CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN Skalski and Krai, much of which is accessible as court exhibits, makes for mixed reading, by turns outrageous and piteous. It does seem to represent a conspiracy, in some sense of that word, to poach and traffic in specimens of endangered and protected wildlife; but from another perspective it seems just a long pen-pal conversation between two overgrown boys, who hoarded and traded butterflies for their private delectation the way other boys might have hoarded and traded baseball cards. The nature of the crimes is that, instead of coveting the Pete Rose or the Mickey Mantle rookie card, Skalski and Krai coveted the Kaibab swallowtail, the Uncompahgre fritillary, and quite a few other precious little beasts. They did occasionally sell and buy specimens as well as trading them, but they weren’t high-volume businessmen like Charles Kondor.

On August 3, 1984, in the early stage of their acquaintance, Richard Skalski wrote in his careful, schoolish longhand to Thomas Krai:

Dear Tom,

I want to apologize for taking so long in corresponding with you. I’ve been absolutely too bussy [sic] to write, as I’ve been traveling every weekend looking for butterflies. I did want to get back to you on your latest shipment ASAP. What can I say to express my delight as I opened your parcel. All I could say was Oh My! I loved the butterflies you sent. All arrived safely and are superb. As you can guess, I am very pleased with all. I did not expect to see 5 pair of Eumaeus atala florida and all those other goodies.

Call me a soft-headed liberal, but my sense is that anyone who cherishes butterflies so ingenuously can’t be all bad.

Let the record show, however, that Eumaeus atala florida is a rare subspecies, once feared extinct, that now survives only in a few brushy enclaves in southern Florida. It’s a stunningly handsome little creature, velvety bluish black with dots of iridescent bluish green around the hind-wing margins. Even an adamantly pro-collecting lepidopterist, James Scott, author of the authoritative Butterflies of North America, has written of Eumaeus atala that “every colony deserves protection from development and excess collecting.” Yet here was Skalski receiving ten specimens from his friend Krai, in part because Krai himself had a surplus, if not an excess. Years later, when Krai’s house was searched, he possessed dozens and dozens of Eumaeus atala florida, having taken them (so the indictment asserts) from a protected area called Crandon Park, on Key Biscayne.

At a later point in the same letter, Skalski wrote, “I will also keep it concelled [sic] as to where I obtained the endangered material you sent. Mum’s the word!” Touches like that, throughout the correspondence, make it hard to maintain sympathy for these guys.

The case was scheduled to go to trial at the end of 1994 in Judge James Ware’s federal courtroom in San Jose; but it didn’t. On December 7 of that year, Marc Grinnell pled guilty to the one count of conspiracy. A week later, Richard Skalski made the same plea. Both men agreed to forfeit the seized specimens that figured in the indictment, and both would be sentenced after the case was fully disposed. Tom Krai remained the unrepentant holdout. In a phone conversation with me a month earlier, Krai had said, “I’m no more guilty than any other collector. I mean, everybody from the Smithsonian Institution on down has done the same things I’m accused of.” The Fish and Wildlife Service was “a malicious bunch” with too many law-enforcement personnel and a misdirected sense of mission, but destined to “fall flat on its face” in this battle with him. He had made dark intimations connecting his case to larger issues within the Department of the Interior, and hinted that Bruce Babbitt was headed for comeuppance; in Krai’s view, even the mid-term elections that had brought in a Republican Congress a week earlier somehow signaled a tide turning in his favor. “We’re gonna win. And I mean big,” he had said. “The case is like a joke. When this is over, I’m not sure whether ‘Sixty Minutes’ or David Letterman is gonna call me.” I had learnt during that conversation, and have seen abundantly confirmed since, that Tom Krai is a feisty and garrulous fellow with an endless repertoire of self-exonerating arguments. But even he couldn’t sustain that level of manic delusion. In January, he pled.

Marc Grinnell was sentenced to three years on probation and fined $3,000. Richard Skalski, more substantially implicated in the litany of overt acts, was treated more seriously. On August 1 of 1995, Judge Ware sentenced Skalski to five months in prison. In addition to the prison time and a fine like Grinnell’s, Skalski was also given two years probation, five months of that to be served in a halfway house; and throughout the two years he’ll be barred from entering a national park or other protected area without permission from his probation officer, and from collecting a butterfly under any circumstances whatsoever. This left Tom Krai, whose sentencing was scheduled for the same day as Skalski’s. To the considerable surprise of several people, including the prosecutor who had negotiated the plea bargains, Judge Ware departed downward five levels from the recommended sentencing guidelines and let Tom Krai off with the same probation period and fine as Grinnell’s. No jail time. The reason Judge Ware gave for this unexpected leniency to Krai was “the defendant’s extraordinary acceptance of responsibility and the confusion of the current law.” When the Krai sentence was announced, according to Chris Nagano, the government entomologist, “I think everybody was stunned.” Special Agent Mendoza agrees, calling it “mystifying.” Although he considers Ware a good judge, Mendoza feels that “the animals, the Endangered Species Act, and the national parks deserved a little more respect.” Then with a philosophic shrug he adds, “I’m reminded of the refrain by T. S. Eliot. ‘This is the way the world will end, not with a bang but with a whimper.'”

I was surprised by the Krai sentence too—but scarcely more surprised than I’ve been by any aspect of this odd case, in each phase of which have appeared ambiguous new highlights. I’m equally surprised that a hardworking butterfly cop would choose such a poetic expression of dudgeon. Then again, if Agent Mendoza knows Eliot, maybe he also knows Frost: “Why make so much of fragmentary blue/ In here and there a bird, or butterfly,/ Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,/ When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?” And as Frost himself was no doubt aware, the very blueness of the heavens—of the sky—is itself a trick of the light.

 

AT THE END OF THE SUMMER, not long after the sentencing of Skalski and Krai, I spend a few days on the Olympic peninsula chasing butterflies with Bob Pyle. Actually we’re in Olympic National Park—but we have permission, and furthermore we aren’t collecting butterflies, we’re just catching them, inspecting them gingerly, and releasing them. It’s a weekend butterfly course taught by Pyle through the Olympic Park Institute. “Acquaint yourself with the colorful butterflies of the Olympic Mountains and their natural history,” urges the brochure. “Delight in the practice of harmless capture methods to examine live specimens.” Pyle has his old trusty net, Marsha, and I’m using my nifty new aluminum two-piece model from the BioQuip catalogue.

Although he can argue eloquently that butterfly collecting is a valuable activity, yielding scientific data and bringing young people to an appreciation of nature, Pyle himself doesn’t collect much anymore. Making his living as a writer and lecturer, he devotes considerable time to promoting the nonconsumptive study and enjoyment of butterflies. Having long been involved with Fourth of July butterfly counts (mirroring the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird counts) through the Xerces Society, and having published a Handbook for Butterfly Watchers in 1984, he has been one of the setters of that nonconsumptive trend. Lately there’s a new group, the North American Butterfly Association, growing fast in membership and already much larger than the Lepidopterists’ Society, that promotes butterfly gardening, butterfly photography, butterfly watching through binoculars—that is, hands-off types of butterfly appreciation. Pyle’s own preferred method still involves Marsha, and he has an extraordinarily deft touch in handling live butterflies. One of his favorite gambits, when teaching a field course, is to display a live butterfly to a circle of students, describe its distinguishing marks and its biology, then release the insect by setting it gently onto someone’s nose. Dazed, or maybe just calmed, the butterfly usually lingers for a moment. Pyle’s slide lectures are full of photos of smiling people with swallowtails perched on their noses.

Now we’re gathered around him, ten of us, on a high meadow in the Olympic Mountains. He’s explaining the fine points of differentiation between two closely related species of fritillary, Speyeria zerene and Speyeria hydaspe. The S. hydaspe, on this particular day, seems to be rarer. It’s also more distinctively marked on the underside of its hind wings, where the whitish spots are shadowed with a purplish tinge. Holding the butterfly pinned harmlessly in his forceps, Pyle shows us. “Oh,” he says. “You see that lavender highlight along the margin? There are lots of iridescences and fugitive colors you get when the sun hits it just right.”

Then he plunks the hydaspe onto my nose. It sits there for many minutes, a beautiful little thing but, from where I stand, difficult to see.

David Quammen is a science, nature and travel writer and the author of fifteen books, five of them fiction. He wrote a column, called “Natural Acts” for Outside magazine for fifteen years. His articles have also appeared in National Geographic, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, the New York Times Book Review and other periodicals. In 2013, Quammen’s book Spillover was shortlisted for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. He lives in Bozeman with his wife, Betsy Gaines Quammen, a conservationist, who is currently doing a Ph.D. in environmental history at Montana State University, and their family of large white dogs and a cat. His new book project, begun in late 2013, involves molecular phylogenetics and the idea of the Tree of Life.

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