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The U.S. Justice Department is accusing three top collectors of killing rare bugs on public land after authorities broke up an alleged butterfly poaching ring.

Prosecutors say the men illegally netted hundreds of butterflies in a national poaching spree that included stops at Rocky Mountain National Park and several other protected areas in Colorado, according to a published report in The Denver Post's Sunday editions.The collectors each face five years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted.

All told, the Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated insects that allegedly were taken from Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Olympic, Big Bend, Rocky Mountain and Everglades national parks as well as several national monuments and national recreation areas.

Some specimens also were alleged to have come from the Uncompahgre, Arapaho and Pike national forests in Colorado; the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests in Wyoming; and six national wildlife refuges in Alaska, Florida, California and Nebraska.

The case began when federal agents obtained a search warrant and raided the Redwood City, Calif., home of Richard Skalski in June 1992.

Investigators later mounted raids on the homes of two collectors, Thomas Kral of Tucson and Marc Grinnell of Santa Rosa, Calif.

The indictment says the three men traded butterflies with each other and additional collectors.

Skalski and Kral also are accused of selling some rare specimens for hundreds of dollars to dealers and collectors.

"This is big. It could potentially involve anyone who ever slapped a net over a butterfly," said Kral, who stands accused of taking 26 specimens of a federal endangered species, the Uncompahgre fritillary, from a 14,000-foot peak near Lake City in southwestern Colorado.

Kral declined to discuss specifics in the indictment but said, "You can't overcollect butterflies. . . . There has never been a doc-u-ment-ed case of any butterfly anywhere on the globe of being collected to extinction. Without exception, the problem is habitat destruction, not collecting."

The December indictment is forcing many of America's top museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, to evaluate whether their own prized butterfly collections were assembled in violation of federal laws.

The scandal already has besmirched the names of Paul Ehrlich, renowned author of en-vi-ron-ment-al books such as "The Population Bomb," and Dennis Murphy, incoming president of the Society of Conservation Biology. Both scientists' Stanford University labs allegedly were used by one accused poacher to raise exotic caterpillars filched from Grand Canyon National Park.

Experts say intensive butterfly collecting can devastate populations of vanishing species and subspecies. They also worry whether their science and hobby will be hurt by the rise of commercial markets that sell rare butterflies to collectors for as much as $400 per pair.

Others see it as overkill. Gail Shifman, an attorney for one of the accused poachers, said the Justice Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are wasting money by prosecuting the case.

Trial will be held in San Jose, Calif., where the indictment was issued.