A Long Island man was charged on Tuesday with smuggling $200,000 worth of deceased, protected butterflies, including exceptionally large ones known as birdwings, and other insects into and out of the United States.
The man, Charles Limmer, 75, sought to conceal the smuggling scheme by conspiring with others to label the illegal shipments as “decorative wall coverings,” “origami paper craft” and “wall decorations,” according to a six-count federal indictment filed in the Eastern District of New York.
The indictment says that Mr. Limmer expressed contempt for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency that, among other things, enforces regulations related to wildlife shipments. “Screw USFWS,” he wrote in an exchange with a co-conspirator, according to the indictment.
Mr. Limmer had not been arraigned as of Tuesday. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of smuggling, prosecutors said.
Contacted at his home in Commack, N.Y., he declined to comment on the charges. He said he was a lepidopterist — someone who studies or collects butterflies and moths — “by profession and by training” and “more of a conservationist than any employee who ever worked for Fish and Wildlife.”
He referred all other questions to a lawyer, Renee Wong. She declined to comment.
According to the indictment, Mr. Limmer obtained a federal license to import and export wildlife commercially in 2016. The wildlife service suspended the license last October, the indictment says; it does not explain why.
From then until last month, the indictment says, Mr. Limmer used online platforms to sell wildlife he had imported illegally to customers around the world. On Tuesday, he had various butterflies, moths and beetles listed for sale on Etsy, eBay and InsectNet at a range of prices. Buyers typically pin and frame the insects for display.
In addition to federal smuggling laws, Mr. Limmer is accused of flouting a 1973 agreement signed by 184 international parties that is meant to ensure the global trade in animals and plants does not put their survival in the wild at risk.
Species covered by the agreement, the indictment says, include birdwing butterflies. The name stems from their majestic size, angular wings and birdlike flight. Their dimensions make birdwings, vividly colored natives of places like Papua New Guinea and Australia, popular with butterfly collectors, the indictment says.
Last month, according to the indictment, Mr. Limmer received two birdwings in a package from the Solomon Islands and listed them for sale the same day for about $480.
Birdwing smuggling cases are unusual, but not unheard-of, court records show.
In 2016, a California man pleaded guilty to violating the federal Endangered Species Act after he was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport trying to bring dozens of the protected butterflies into the country from Japan. In 2007, a Japanese man who admitted to smuggling birdwings into the United States was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison.
The indictment against Mr. Limmer seeks the forfeiture of more than 1,000 butterflies, moths, cicadas and other insects. Many have already been seized, the indictment indicates, mostly in New York, except for two dried butterflies in Honolulu and 200 white witch moths in Miami.