Endangered Species Bug Bust in Michigan

I have discussed the CITES treaty before, and also dealing in endangered species. A local Michigan man just ran afoul of both:

Kevin Rucinski of Roscommon County’s Gerrish Township was sentenced Thursday as part of an 18-month term of probation. The 49-year-old also was ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution and a $15,000 fine.

Rucinski pleaded guilty earlier this year to violating the Endangered Species Act. Authorities say he bought more than $15,000 worth of dried insects including butterflies on eBay, many from abroad.

As usual on news stories, the comments are quite cranky–mostly focusing around “why are cops doing this instead of finding real criminals?”

Well, why ARE they chasing a Michigan dentist, rather than a drug kingpin?

There are several answers to that question. CITES stands for  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. As a signatory to CITES, the US has a responsibility to enforce it.

CITES  bans the worldwide trade of species that are on the verge of extinction.  It is important because many governments in areas of high biodiversity are not able to fully control collection and export of endangered species.

CITES acts to reduce the demand for endangered animals and plants by regulating their trade.  Ideally, as more people realize that (for example) owning rhino horns is illegal, fewer rhinos will will be killed for their horns.  This is not always the case, alas.

If our Michigan dentist had bought thousands of dollars worth of tiger skins, rhino horns, or clouded leopards, I think law enforcement action against him would be quite understandable.  People look at this photo of a bird smuggler and immediately are outraged at the cruelty.

Most Birdwing butterflies are CITES protected
Most Birdwing butterflies are CITES protected

But…this Michigan dentist bought a lot of what, colloquially, are known as bugs. Which are seen as trivial in the public view, or worse, pest species.  Hence, the cranky comments about this not being a “real” crime.

But insects are just as important, possibly more so, than vertebrate charismatic species. Insects are the little gears that make an ecosystem work.  We don’t actually know, most of the time, what consequences total removal of an insect species from their native habitat will have.  We can guess, based on experience, that it will be a bad thing.

This utilitarian argument for saving species is one that most people can understand, regardless of their knowledge of ecosystems and nutrient cycling.

There is also a second argument to be made: that insects have an intrinsic value, simply because they exist.  In other words, when we see a paper that reports 50% of insect species living on an island have dissapeared, we should be saddened, even if there is no commercial value to those insects.

In a very nice news article on conservation of parasites, Rob Dunn discusses saving the little things that run the world:

“Depending on what happens to human societies, we will spend the next few generations coming to terms with what we have lost,” said Dunn. “We won’t know most of what we have lost because it will have never been named. Some of the species we will have lost will have had important medicinal values. Some of them will have pollinated our crops. Some of them will have been strange creatures deserving explanation. Some will have been beautiful. Some will have had values that we are not yet capable of understanding.

“We live in a vast living museum that is being flooded and burned and ravaged. We know that we must save some of the art, but we don’t know anything about the art. So we grab the showiest things and hope they are important.”

Yeah. What he said.

Citation of the paper I mentioned:

Sodhi, N., Wilcove, D., Subaraj, R., Yong, D., Lee, T., Bernard, H., & Lim, S. (2009). Insect extinctions on a small denuded Bornean island Biodiversity and Conservation DOI: 10.1007/s10531-009-9585-7

Additional Info on Extinction and Importation:

9 thoughts on “Endangered Species Bug Bust in Michigan

  1. I think we’ve lost something along the way by outlawing collecting by amateurs. As boys. we could identify many common butterflies in the UK countryside, recognise birds and yes,it even went as far as train-spotting identifying railway stock. We were engaged with something bigger than ourselves and goodness knows where our curiosity led us. Listening to general knowledge programmes in the 60’s and 70′ demonstrated the enormous breadth of information that was being tucked away in the pursuit of hobbies and other interests. If you ask a teenager today to name even a Cabbage White they wouldn’t know it from a daisy.

    I hear conservationists up in arms about collectors but they could be harnessed as bird spotters are, to increase the number of eyes on the ground. And when they talk about impact on species numbers I ask them to inspect the radiator grille under the bonnet of their car. A wasteland of dead bodies. And that’ll only be one car out of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

    I love butterflies, a love affair that began with a Meadow Browm (Maniola Jurtina), as boy of 10, over sixty years ago.

  2. I think you’re missing something Derrick–this isn’t about making it illegal to collect common butterflies in the countryside. It’s about importing and purchasing protected species across international borders.
    It’s perfectly legal to collect non-listed species.

  3. Alas, Bug Girl faces the difficult problem that all who have an interest in invertebrates generally and “bugs” especially must confront—resistance to the importance and interest of their subject on grounds of the apparent uselessness and “ickiness” of the wonderful creatures they study.

  4. Not in Spain I’m afraid. And yes,I did inadvertently sidetrack. I too am totally against sale in protected species and having spent over 25 years in Southern Africa I have seen the dreadful results of this despicable trade.

  5. I don’t know enough details about your bug buying dentist to comment on their case, but I’ve actively supported the conservation of invertebrates for a long time, so I’m not unhappy to see the Endangered Species Act (ESA) being used to punish an illegal trade in “dried insects including butterflies” (would anything have happened if there weren’t butterflies?). As I understand the data, however, for the vast majority of threatened invertebrate species habitat conservation is the critical factor and CITES does nothing there. CITES is a pain for anyone doing legitimate research on any native invertebrate too, endangered or not. So I tend to see regulations like CITES and the outlawing of collecting that Derrick refers to as somewhere between useless and wrong-headed: fines and redtape criminalizing the last vestiges of a natural interest in nature in an increasingly out-of-touch urban population and covering over the relentless advance of suburbs and vacation resorts into prime invertebrate habitat. I think this is a real problem in invertebrate (and perhaps all) conservation: when we press for protection, we end up with rules that tie us in knots and do nothing to save the fauna.

  6. I wonder if you can tell me how to find list of endangerd insects, especially from other countreis such as Phillipines and Thailand.

    Thanks

  7. If you click on the CITES link above, it will give you the complete global list of endangered species, sortable by country and continent :)

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