Butterfly sanctuary closing indefinitely after wave of right-wing conspiracy theories and threats

‘The safety of our staff and visitors is our primary concern’

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 02 February 2022 22:51 GMT
Trump's border wall has left a destructive legacy of environmental harm, conservationists say

A butterfly sanctuary near the US-Mexico border has closed indefinitely amid ongoing threats and conspiracy theories raising baseless allegations that it is involved with human trafficking.

The National Butterfly Center – a private nature preserve in the Rio Grande Valley – has been a frequent target of far-right conspiracy theorists falsely accusing the centre of supporting a border-crossing trafficking ring, accusations that trade in the same false claims that propelled the QAnon movement.

Last week, the centre announced that it was forced to close over the weekend “due to credible threats” ahead of a “We Stand America” rally in nearby McAllen, Texas, featuring Donald Trump-allied figures like former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and prominent election fraud conspiracy theorist Patrick Byrne.

The centre’s executive director Marianna Trevino Wright said she was advised to “be armed at all times or out of town” during the event.

On 2 February, the centre announced it will remain closed “for the immediate future.”

“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this may cause to members and visitors, many of whom plan trips months in advance, to experience this truly exceptional place,” Ms Wright said in a statement.

“The safety of our staff and visitors is our primary concern,” said Jeffrey Glassberg, president and founder of the North American Butterfly Association. “We look forward to reopening, soon, when the authorities and professionals who are helping us navigate this situation give us the green light.”

The 100-acre wildlife centre and native species botanical garden is the flagship facility for the North American Butterfly Association, hosting dozens of species found only in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. It also is home to the annual Texas Butterfly Festival.

Right-wing anti-immigrant campaigns have collided with sex trafficking conspiracy theories that have been central to the QAnon movement. But conspiracy theories involving the sanctuary have repeatedly materialised into in-person intimidation and harassment as well as threatening emails, phone calls and messages on social media.

During the border security-focused “We Stand America” event, attendees filmed themselves near the centre’s sign.

“Why are you more concerned about butterflies than you are [about] little children who are being trafficked?” said Women Fighting for America founder Christie Hutcherson, who claimed that human traffickers “use the butterfly land.”

Ben Bergquam, a correspondent for the far-right network Real America’s Voice, which also hosts Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, held up a child’s shoe in a clip near the centre’s sign, claiming the shoe came from “one of the children that was trafficked.”

The sanctuary first came under far-right scrutiny after Ms Wright criticised Trump administration plans to build a border wall through the property, including a 2017 lawsuit arguing that its construction would destroy crucial habitat for butterflies and migratory birds.

In 2019, the centre filed a restraining order to block a Bannon-supported “We Build the Wall” campaign, which raised more than $25m on spurious claims that it would finish construction of Trump’s wall, and drawing the ire of the campaign’s founders.

“The only butterflies we saw were swarming a decomposing body surrounded by tons of rotting trash left behind by illegals,” campaign leader Brian Kolfage said on Twitter that year.

Mr Kolfage also smeared the centre’s employees as “butterfly freaks” running a “sham” sanctuary, which was flooded with harassing messages on its social media pages.

He also lashed out at a local Catholic priest he baselessly accused of “promoting human trafficking and abuse of women and children.”

In December 2019, a Texas judge ordered that the project halt construction, which would cause “imminent and irreparable harm” to the 100-acre preserve.

In August 2020, Mr Kolfage and his associates were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. In May 2021, he was separately indicted on charges of defrauding the IRS and filing false tax returns. He pleaded not guilty.

On 21 January, Virginia GOP congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe appeared outside the centre with another person who claimed to be a US Secret Service agent, demanding access to the river to “see the rafts with the illegal crossing” at the property, according to the centre.

After the women were told to leave, Ms Lowe “tried to run over Marianna’s son … who was trying to close the front gate to prevent the candidate and her friend from leaving with Marianna’s phone, which they had taken from her after knocking her to the ground outside the pavilion,” the centre said in an email last week.

In an affidavit provided to The Independent, Ms Wright said she told the women they were trespassing on private property, and that she was “thrown to the ground” over a scuffle over a phone.

In Ms Lowe’s now-deleted Facebook video reviewed by The Independent, the woman can be seen shoving Ms Wright, as Ms Lowe calls for her to return to the car. She then speeds towards the exit and tells someone to “get the f*** out of my way.”

“This is what you have down here at the border with crazy freaking people who are OK with children being trafficked and raped,” Ms Lowe says in the front-facing video from the driver’s seat.

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