WALLA WALLA — An orange and black monarch butterfly rested on Alex Littlebear’s fingertips for a few seconds before taking flight over a barbed wire fence at the Washington State Penitentiary.
The convicted killer smiled as dozens of other butterflies fluttered toward the sky and out of sight. Littlebear and the handful of other inmates who released the insects Monday at the Walla Walla prison call themselves the butterfly wranglers.
The group of about 40 inmates in the mental health and protective custody units raise the butterflies and release them with the hopes of helping scientists track their migration patterns.
“It’s a stress relief for me,” said Littlebear, 30. “This has got me to appreciate butterflies now that I’ve seen them grow.”
Littlebear is serving a 13-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2004 to manslaughter after he helped beat a homeless activist to death in Seattle.
Inmates are releasing hundreds of monarch butterflies this month as part of the prison’s butterfly rearing program. The program started last year to help Washington State University scientists learn more about monarchs in the Pacific Northwest.
The monarch, which lives between six and 10 months, essentially is a sub-tropical butterfly that leaves the Northwest in the winter for warmer places, said David James, associate professor of entomology for WSU in Prosser. It is one of the few butterflies that migrates and researchers are trying to pin down where it goes.
“We know very little about them in the Northwest,” James said.
The butterflies are tagged — a small sticker is placed on their wing with a serial number and email address for James — before they are released. People who recapture them are encouraged to contact him so he can track their migration.
James said he believes a majority of the Northwest monarchs are migrating to California and Mexico.