Butterfly Center Closed Over Fears of Conspiracy Nuts

A ginned up controversy regarding a border nature reserve has escalated.

Houston Chronicle (“National Butterfly Center on Texas border closing indefinitely after attacks from right-wing conspiracy theorists“):

The National Butterfly Center on the Texas border is closing “for the immediate future” after conspiracy-fueled attacks against the center on social media escalated in recent days.

The butterfly sanctuary, part of the North American Butterfly Association, made the announcement Wednesday. The decision came just days after GOP operatives descended on the site, reviving baseless and false conspiracy theories linking the center to sex trafficking.

The center’s leaders fear the renewed focus on the nature preserve could lead to violence, as similar online harassment directed at a Washington, D.C. pizzeria in 2016 led a man to fire a rifle inside the restaurant.

“The safety of our staff and visitors is our primary concern,” said Dr. 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 butterfly center has been the target of far-right conspiracy theories for years, after the sanctuary in 2017 sued over the Trump administration’s plans to build a border wall through the 100-acre nature preserve.

Two years later, online trolls — led by Brian Kolfage, the head of the allegedly fraudulent “We Build the Wall” fundraising campaign — falsely claimed there were dead bodies and “rampant sex trade” at the sanctuary.

But the situation escalated over the past two weeks, starting with a confrontation between Marianna Treviño Wright, the center’s executive director, and Kimberly Lowe, a GOP congressional candidate from Virginia.

On Jan. 21, Lowe approached the facility and demanded to see “illegals crossing on rafts.” When Treviño Wright refused, the candidate began filming on a phone and accused her of being “OK with children being sex trafficked and raped and murdered.”

The Daily Beast (“MAGA Candidate Caught on Tape Menacing Butterfly Sanctuary“) has a bit more on the conspiracy:

Although the National Butterfly Center is located in Texas, Donald Trump’s proposed wall would run two miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, bisecting the protected land. In 2019, the center filed a restraining order against the construction project. That court filing made the center a fixation of the far right.

One Trumpist group, the Bannon-backed “We Build the Wall” campaign, targeted the center with conspiracy theories. Brian Kolfage, a leader of the group, repeatedly tweeted that the National Butterfly Center was harboring an illegal sex trade and dead bodies.

“The only butterflies we saw were swarming a decomposing body surrounded by tons of rotting trash left behind by illegals,” he tweeted in 2019. Kolfage was hardly a neutral party. His “We Build the Wall” fundraised more than $25 million by claiming it would construct Trump’s border wall. (Feds say the scheme was illegal. Kolfage and his business partners have since been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.)

By late 2019, conspiracy theorists were circulating memes falsely accusing the National Butterfly Center of being a front for sex traffickers. Wright and colleagues faced in-person threats from members of militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, as well as threatening phone calls and emails from a man who was revealed to be a Texas police officer.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call Kimberly Lowe a “GOP operative.” The Beast article describes her as a “longshot candidate” for Congress. Ballotpedia shows that she ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for the House of Delegates in 2021. That campaign may well have been a grift, in that she raised $40,641, $29,600 of which was donated by something called Total Market Exposure, and spent only $7617. Regardless, the Republican ultimately won the seat. Lowe is sufficiently fringe that, according to a TPM report, she’s been disinvited from Flynn’s “We Stand America” rally after the incident at the Butterfly Center.

Kolfage is a bizarre character. He was an Air Force cop, lost both legs and a hand in a rocket explosion in Iraq, and went on to get an architecture degree from the University of Arizona. He’s apparently been spreading conspiracies online since 2013 and has created a number of fake news sites and various marketing ventures capitalizing on his veteran status, most or all of which are apparently fraudulent. He started a GoFundMe to build the border wall, quickly raised $9 million, and that led to a fraudulent nonprofit aligned with Steve Bannon. The Butterfly Center filed suit against him back in 2019.

Marianna Treviño Wright, the Center’s executive director, is certainly playing it up:

“This prolonged and concerted attack by (former White House chief strategist) Steve Bannon and associates, which has already provoked stochastic terrorism in El Paso and in Washington, D.C., is directed at us and has been since 2019,” she said. “It’s escalating radically as part of their MAGA midterm election strategy, and … puts us in a very dangerous position.”

She’s an interesting character in her own right. She runs an anti-Border Patrol blog on which she describes herself as a “Reluctant activist. Passionate hija de la frontera and dual citizen.”

The whole thing is bizarre but, in the current environment, it’s more than plausible that some nut will shoot people at the Center. The extent of involvement of the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters isn’t clear from the reports. Another report from The Week links the conspiracies to QAnon, which is consistent with their style, but doesn’t explain the chain.

FILED UNDER: Crime
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Life in America.

    2
  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    She’s an interesting character in her own right. She runs an anti-Border Patrol blog on which she describes herself as a “Reluctant activist. Passionate hija de la frontera and dual citizen.”

    “If she didn’t want to be the victim of far-right violence, she shouldn’t have dressed that way”

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  3. Scott says:

    Can we just call it for what it is: domestic terrorism.

    7
  4. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Her statement was rather over-the-top in its political orientation for an executive at a butterfly conservatory, so I was curious who she was.

    @Scott: QAnon and some of the militia groups are certainly at least terrorist-adjacent. I’m not sure that we’ve seen acts of terrorism in this particular instance though.

    1
  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Maybe she’s a bit touchy because in the past last week alone one person robbed her and then tried to run over her son with a truck, and then of Greg Abbott’s vigilantes tried to smash another truck through the center’s gate:

    EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: National Guard member crashes truck into gate at National Butterfly Center

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  6. Scott F. says:

    Lowe is sufficiently fringe that, according to a TPM report, she’s been disinvited from Flynn’s “We Stand America” rally after the incident at the Butterfly Center.

    The fringe in today’s GOP are the moderates.

    2
  7. KM says:

    @James Joyner:

    rather over-the-top in its political orientation for an executive at a butterfly conservator

    If I understand correctly, that’s from her anti-Border Patrol blog, not the conservatory she works at. What does one need to do with the other? I think it’s a sign of how normalized extreme partisanship and right-wing nuttery has become over the last few decades that a personal blog’s relevancy to their day job makes you curious.

    In fact, her anti-Border Patrol stance makes a hell of a lot more sense when you realize they probably caused the conservatory problems before the recent insanity. If she had to deal with overzealous /aggressive agents or pro-Wall people trying to screw up her job, that would sour her on them wouldn’t it? Kinda like someone running a food pantry having an anti-cop blog because they get officers coming by to hassle poor people or the unhoused – your interactions with a political or governmental agency during your nice, normal job might may you a bit political in your private life!

    6
  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @KM:

    If I understand correctly, that’s from her anti-Border Patrol blog, not the conservatory she works at. What does one need to do with the other?

    Also notice the sudden shift from his reaction to Ilya Shapiro/Whoopi Goldberg/Joe Rogan when someone he doesn’t recognize as part of his “professional opinion-haver” class is under attack.

    4
  9. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    Her statement was rather over-the-top in its political orientation for an executive at a butterfly conservatory

    Was she factually incorrect?

    Let’s compare her statement with the reporting you cited:

    Her statement:

    “This prolonged and concerted attack by Steve Bannon and associates, which has already provoked stochastic terrorism in El Paso and in Washington, D.C., is directed at us and has been since 2019,” she said. “It’s escalating radically as part of their MAGA midterm election strategy, and … puts us in a very dangerous position.”

    The reporting:

    One Trumpist group, the Bannon-backed “We Build the Wall” campaign, targeted the center with conspiracy theories. Brian Kolfage, a leader of the group, repeatedly tweeted that the National Butterfly Center was harboring an illegal sex trade and dead bodies. […]

    By late 2019, conspiracy theorists were circulating memes falsely accusing the National Butterfly Center of being a front for sex traffickers. Wright and colleagues faced in-person threats from members of militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, as well as threatening phone calls and emails from a man who was revealed to be a Texas police officer.

    And now the Butterfly Center was forced to close indefnitely. So it seems things are escalating.

    At most, one could quibble about the extent of Bannon’s role and the connection with the upcoming midterms – which however seems quite plausible.

    You are basically saying that Wright can’t say what’s happening right in front of her, because that would be too “political.”

    Why do you want people to look away?

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  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    Also, having gone to the “blog” in question (which consists of a total of seven entries, the most recent of which is almost two months old), I question the description of it as “anti-Border Patrol”.

    It seems more “pro-migrant” to me. The belief that standing up for people’s rights makes you explicitly “anti-law enforcement” is certainly a common one, though.

    6
  11. steve says:

    Not mentioned is that a local Trump-train caravan is being planned and the butterfly center is expected to be a stop. She was reportedly advised by a local (GOP) politician to go armed at all times.
    Look at what some of the Connecticut parents have had to put up with because Alex Jones lied about them. All she really did was ask that the Wall not be built through the sanctuary property. In return she faces 2 years of harassment that now includes in person confrontations and now a large mass of any people showing up for more in person harassment.

    Steve

    Steve

    6
  12. Jay L Gischer says:

    Two years later, online trolls — led by Brian Kolfage, the head of the allegedly fraudulent “We Build the Wall” fundraising campaign — falsely claimed there were dead bodies and “rampant sex trade” at the sanctuary.

    Why isn’t this actionable as libel and defamation? It seems like it would be.

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  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Some of these billionaire, alleged Dems need to stop with the vanity political campaigns and spend some money on activities that can hurt the frauds. Peter Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s, defamation case that Hogan shouldn’t have won and crushed Gawker. Someone should step up and underwrite a suit against Kolfage and his ilk. Alex Jones has certainly been pantsed in court.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    I’m just amazed that they were letting people visit the sex trafficking hub butterfly center for so long.

    2
  15. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    one person robbed her and then tried to run over her son with a truck, and then of Greg Abbott’s vigilantes tried to smash another truck through the center’s gate:

    That actually makes more sense. All of the reports I cited just talked about the one confrontation with Lowe, which was just a lunatic spouting conspiracy theories and filming it.

    @KM: A rant about “stochastic terrorism” is rather a red flag coming from a butterfly curator. It smacks of a political operative, so I was curious as to her background. The Medium blog popped right up when I investigated.

    @Stormy Dragon: I think of Medium as a blogging platform. That she’s only written a few entries doesn’t make it not a blog. That most of them seem to do with what creeps BP agents are makes it anti-BP.

    @Jay L Gischer: There’s an ongoing lawsuit.

    @Stormy Dragon: I tend to defend free speech, even when it comes from people I disagree with (like Whoopi Goldberg yesterday). I’m categorically opposed to nutjobs fomenting conspiracy theories online, whether against Butterfly Centers or otherwise, including if their administrators are a bit kooky.

    Thus far, no one has gotten hurt and it’s more of a bizarre story than anything else. All of the characters in it, whether hero or villain, are somewhat cartoonish.

  16. Kurtz says:

    A ginned up controversy regarding a border nature reserve has escalated.

    What do you have against gin? It’s a fine spirit.

    2
  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    one person robbed her and then tried to run over her son with a truck, and then of Greg Abbott’s vigilantes tried to smash another truck through the center’s gate:

    Thus far, no one has gotten hurt

    One of these is not like the other. My ex’s husband once tried to run my son over with his truck in a drunken rage. The fact that he missed and so “no one got hurt,” didn’t stop me from doing what needed to be done.

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  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    All of the reports I cited just talked about the one confrontation with Lowe, which was just a lunatic spouting conspiracy theories and filming it.

    Did you actually READ the very Daily Beast article you linked to? If all you got from that was “lunatic spouting conspiracy theories and filming it”, you need to read it again.

    3
  19. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    A rant about “stochastic terrorism” is rather a red flag coming from a butterfly curator. It smacks of a political operative

    Seriously? You need to get out more, James. This term has been in the public domain for a long time now; it is used by educated people in all walks of life.