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.