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Moving Forward: The National Butterfly Center Continues to Soar High  
BY: Erin Runnels

MISSION, Texas - The humid and warm air smothered everything outdoors as Luciano Guerra looked out into the calm river that divides Texas and Mexico.  

“It’s a very safe place, I’ve brought my kids here, I’ve brought my grandkids here. I’ve taken one of my grandkids on a boat ride on the river.” Guerra said. “I was not the least bit of concerned about their safety.”  

Even when the weather is cloudy and somber, the Rio Grande River still maintains a sense of serenity that keeps nature lovers coming back for a dose of calm, in a world full of everything but that. 

 In 2019, the National Butterfly Center, where Guerra works, temporarily closed for the safety of staff and visitors after being caught in the crosshairs of a national debate over U.S./Mexico border security due to their location. As if that wasn’t enough, they were hit by a tsunami of violent online threats and falsely accused of disturbing crimes. The nightmare began after the center lawyered up when they saw construction for the fences on their private property without permission. The construction would harm the habitats of butterflies and local wildlife, making the jobs of wildlife conservationists more challenging.

While misinformation about the center ran rampant in various online spaces, employees carried on business as usual while increasing security measures behind closed doors. 

Guerra is one of those employees. He is an educator, photographer, and the outreach coordinator at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. Before that, he went to horticulture school and was part of his family’s business that imported seeds and plants. His dream was to be a wildlife photographer, so he sold his share of the company to his brother and set out to follow it. 

In addition to his passion for wildlife nature photography, he also enjoys sharing his knowledge about the importance of nature with children who come to the center for field trips. He said that it’s very important for future generations to learn about nature and their connection to it so they can protect it.  

“One of the things I love about working here is the way I get to help expose these children to nature,” Guerra said. “And maybe we'll make a difference or maybe some of them, something will click, and they'll say, ‘yeah this is something I want to do, I want to devote my life to.” 

A receptionist who works at the center, Aisha Garcia, can speak to his vast knowledge of butterflies and other animals at the center. She also noted that he likes sharing random facts about them too.  

“If I ever have any questions about any birds or butterflies, he’ll for sure know about it.” Garcia said. “Also, he’ll just come out of the woodwork and say every little fact about a butterfly there is.” 

Climate change is real and drastic changes to the environment can have dire consequences. Guerra says that many species are disappearing. A whopping 40% of animals and 34% of plants in the United States are at risk of extinction. 

For the wall to be built, dirt must be dug up, which gets rid of native host plants needed to feed the caterpillars that will turn into butterflies or moths and other insects, Guerra remarked. When destruction of habitat happens, this gets rid of the insects, resulting in less food for the bigger animals higher in the food chain who eat them. 

In addition to the border wall construction, border patrol helicopters constantly fly overhead, sometimes low enough to hit tree branches and blow dirt around. This too affects the butterflies’ environment and disrupts the learning experience of children there on field trips, Guerra said.  

 

Butterflies are one of the many insects and small animals that pollinate most land plants. Without them, we wouldn’t have the wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and grains we eat, Guerra said. Even though butterflies are the main character and do a lot despite their tiny size, the National Butterfly Center looks out for other animals too. Birds, squirrels, snakes, and even a turtle named Spike live on the grounds. Spike was an exotic pet who lived in a garage before the center rescued him years ago.  

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Canon EOS Rebel T7i 6000x4000_001695 (1).jpg

Just as diverse as the wildlife in the Rio Grande Valley is, so are the opinions of locals when it comes to the border wall. Alice Le Duc is a retired horticulture professor from Texas State University and Duke University. She taught plant propagation and greenhouse nursery management at Texas State University for 11 years. Throughout the visit to nature centers in the area, she experienced auditory disturbances from construction and border patrol helicopters that may be considered a nuisance for some visitors.  

“The constant border patrol presence does not bother me. They are doing their jobs.” Le Duc said. “The wall really is more harmful than good. Because it’s not stopping anything. You can go under, you can go over, it doesn’t really deter anybody. What it does is damage the habitats for the wildlife.” 

While she does not find an issue with the border patrol presence, what Le Duc and Guerra have in common is concern about the border wall’s impact on the habitat. She mentioned that the wall would affect ocelots in the area. Ocelots are a medium-sized wildcat with the build of a bobcat. There are only about 80 of them and they go back and forth across the river. The barrier will deter them, and they could be at risk of going extinct. Another thing they have in common is a passion for photography. She likes to take photos of wildlife and has been doing so since high school. She also follows several Facebook birding groups and has seen Guerra’s work in the Texas Birds and Butterflies group. 

The center has been through the ringer after becoming the target of false conspiracy theories and is still dealing with remnants of that. From the mysterious helicopter that hovers above the center for far too long to the unknown origins of why Spike’s enclosure caught on fire in 2020, one thing that is true for sure, is that Guerra and employees at the National Butterfly Center are not going anywhere. They’re here to stay because they care about the next generation and want them to experience the great wonders of the outdoors. No matter how many lies about them are spewed in the dungeons of the internet, they will continue to move forward with educating the public about the wildlife of the Rio Grande Valley.  

“I love coming to work here and I love being part of this team that keeps this place going despite all the people that want to shut it down,” Guerra said. 

For a walking tour of the National Butterfly Center with Luciano Guerra, please click below.

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