Far-right conspiracy theorists have set their sights on an unlikely target: a butterfly sanctuary in South Texas.
The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, has been in operation for more than 20 years as a project of the nonprofit North American Butterfly Association. But it has recently been targeted by QAnon conspiracy theorists who, without evidence, claim that the center is involved in human trafficking.
Now, the National Butterfly Center has suspended operations until further notice after escalating harassment, including threats and trespassing incidents.
Marianna Trevino Wright is the center’s executive director. She spoke with Texas Standard about why she suspects the center is being targeted and why its board of directors is taking the threats so seriously. Listen to the interview with Trevino Wright in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Take us back to the beginning: how and when did all this start?
Marianna Trevino Wright: All of this began in the fall of 2019, when Steve Bannon’s dark money fundraising organization, We Build the Wall, decided to build their project number two in Mission, Texas, and they tried to buy the land right next door to us. And, you know, use us as their piñata, basically for for bolstering fundraising.
What sort of harassment have you and the center’s employees experienced?
Death threats, business disruption, visits from people, you know, reiterating or echoing the lies – the utterly insane claims that we are involved in human trafficking or a cartel front, phone calls, emails, even an assault on our Facebook page that we were unaware of; Facebook had to suspend function. So, yeah, it’s been a lot.
I’m a little surprised that a butterfly center in Mission, Texas, would be in the crosshairs of all of this angst. Do you believe it’s related to your lawsuit in federal court against border-wall construction on your property?
Well, in in July of 2017, we discovered contractors on our property cutting down our trees and mowing down our brush. We were completely surprised; these were not people we knew or had hired or authorized to be on our property in any way. And when I confronted them and said, “Who are you and what are you doing?” They said, “The government sent us to clear this land for the border wall.”
That was a shock because this was nine months before any congressional vote authorizing or appropriating funds for the border wall. There had been no right-of-entry request made – the waiver of laws that takes place for a border-wall construction, where the federal government exempts themselves from every U.S. law they’re going to violate. That had not occurred yet for border-wall construction. There had been no lawsuit filed by the federal government for eminent domain, you know, to condemn and seize our property. So this was a shock and it was illegal. So we filed suit against the federal government, and for 14 months, our lawsuit sat in Judge Richard Leon’s court in the [District of Columbia] District with never a hearing.
How was it ultimately resolved?
Our lawsuit was summarily dismissed with never a day in court. President Trump declared a state of emergency so that he could take funds not appropriated for a border wall to build a border wall. You know, he took funds from the U.S. military, from the U.S. Treasury, from other places, and the Department of Homeland Security spending bill came out for that year. It exempted the National Butterfly Center from border-wall construction, but only with congressionally appropriated funds- not with state-of -emergency funds. So, you know, we filed an appeal of our lawsuit’s dismissal and we won that appeal, and we should be back in Judge Richard Leon’s court having status hearings and being set for trial.
But instead, now the Biden administration and the Department of Justice, under Merrick Garland, have also filed a motion to dismiss.
You tell me.
How did you arrive at the decision to close the center, and what are your future plans?
Well, it was the now the board of directors’ decision. The Butterfly Center is a project of the North American Butterfly Association. We are their only bricks-and-mortar plant – this 100-acre botanical garden dedicated to environmental education concerning wild, free-flying butterflies and their benefits to healthy ecosystems. And it’s that board of directors that decided we needed to close for the safety of our staff and our visitors and our members because of the patterns that all of America should be aware of now.
You know, first it was “Pizzagate,” then there was the “Wall-a-Thon,” and the Walmart massacre, then there was the “Stop the Steal” rally and the Jan. 6 insurrection with its own body count. And we just can’t risk that.
Do you feel like you’re getting enough support from local law enforcement?
I would like to believe so. Yes, the chief of police has been in contact with me. He has informed me that the city prosecutor and investigators are wrapping everything up, so I guess it can go to the district attorney’s office. And the FBI has now opened a case and they have shared all of the evidence with the Secret Service concerning the woman who showed up here impersonating a federal law-enforcement officer.
Is there anything, as you look back on the situation, you wish you’d done differently?
No, not at all. I routinely have visitors with varying viewpoints and have oftentimes received people who claim to be an elected official or running for office. And it’s my job always to greet them and to behave in a professional manner and to do what I can to safeguard the premises and the people there. And that is what I did.
How long is the butterfly center going to be closed?
I do not know. That is a decision the board will have to make. And I know that they have a lot of things that they are trying to accomplish. There are going to be many things that we have to do and put in place in order to feel that we can reopen safely.
This story has been updated to fix an error with missing text in the introduction.