Scott Hoffman Black is executive director of the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the diversity of life through the conservation of invertebrates.
Monday, 7 Apr 2003
Email and a large cup of coffee — pretty much how all my Mondays start. My daughter River is off to school, my foster baby Emmet is off to his grandparents’ house, and my wife Catriona is off to work. Time for email.
There are the usual emails from listservs. Many get sent to the trash but some catch my interest. National forest issues, endangered species issues, general invertebrate conservation issues — the list goes on. Usually something good on GREENLines (news on endangered species), but I never have time to read it all.
Next there are emails that I need to read and answer. A question about the impact of roads on aquatic invertebrates; a request for information on a U.S. Department of Agriculture plan to spray large amounts of pesticides to control Mormon crickets on public land in Idaho; a query from a freelance writer who wants to do a story on endangered butterflies; a response from a magazine that wants to do a story on how to protect pollinator insects; another from a publication that wants 300 words on the importance of invertebrates. I also need to follow up with people on a variety of issues, including a workshop for agency staff on the mardon skipper butterfly (an imperiled butterfly in Oregon) and a memo on putting together a working group on California monarch conservation. The email list goes on and on.
I came to the Xerces Society over two years ago after many years working to protect national forests and endangered species, and after completing degrees in ecology, plant science, and entomology. Now, at this point, many of you may be wondering what exactly the Xerces Society is. According to our mission statement, we’re a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the diversity of life through the conservation of invertebrates. The Society is named for the Xerces blue butterfly, the first butterfly species in North America known to have become extinct as a result of human interference. Now, I know what you may be thinking (actually I have no clue, but it sounded good!): Working to protect bugs? Why would anyone want to do that? There are actually many reasons.
Insects (butterflies, beetles, bees), spiders, crustaceans such as lobsters, and mollusks such as snails and mussels are vital to life as we know it. Insects pollinate many of our food crops as well as many wild plants. Invertebrates are an important food item for many animals as well as humans (have you had lobster or shrimp lately?), and they can also be economically important.
Though they are vital to us and all of the animals that inhabit the earth, invertebrates are often overlooked in management decisions. Even people in the conservation movement know little about them. I am sure you have heard of the endangered Bengal tiger, but have you ever heard of the equally endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle? Our goal is really to change the public’s attitudes toward these important organisms and to work with scientists, land managers, and others to protect habitat for them. This is what the Xerces Society has been doing for three decades. The Society’s current programs focus on native pollinator conservation, aquatic invertebrate monitoring, and protection of threatened, endangered, and vulnerable invertebrates and their habitat. We’ve got just under 6,000 members, in every U.S. state and several other countries.
Our efforts have resulted in protection of endangered invertebrates across the U.S. and far beyond. We developed management guidelines that helped protect monarch overwintering sites in California. We have worked with women in Costa Rica to establish butterfly ranches. We provided training to local citizens in Madagascar, helping them create the Masoala National Park.
We also try to acquaint people with the fascinating world of invertebrates through our publications, which feature the work of renowned wildlife photographers, scientists, conservationists, and writers. We publish the magazine Wings: Essays on Invertebrate Conservation, and we have put out two books: Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden and Streamkeepers: Aquatic Insects as Biomonitors. Another book is in the works: A Pollinator Conservation Handbook.
In many ways, running an organization that protects “bugs” is not that different from running most nonprofit organizations. I manage budgets (organizational and project), raise funds to cover all our costs, and supervise staff. However, in some ways working to protect invertebrates is a lot different. Imagine going to a foundation to ask for funds to protect snails. It can be a daunting task. Our education and outreach is often difficult as well. Everybody has heard about spotted owls, wolves, and grizzly bears but few understand the importance of protecting an earthworm. It is definitely an uphill battle.
I hope you will tune in this week as I teach a class at a local college, work with national conservation groups on butterfly conservation, set up a working group to protect California’s monarch butterfly overwintering sites, pull together information on pesticide spraying, research the status of several imperiled invertebrates, work on two new publications, get out our message of invertebrate conservation to the media, and work with Xerces staff to fund all of these tasks as well!
Tuesday, 8 Apr 2003
Deadlines are always a part of running any nonprofit, and the Xerces Society is no different. This week, we have deadlines for grant applications and deadlines for comments on a plan to spray pesticides. We also have self-imposed deadlines, because we are trying to produce several publication in a timely fashion.
We were asked by the Idaho Conservation League to supply information on a plan to spray pesticides to control Mormon crickets on public land in Idaho. Comments on the plan are due by April 15. Mormon crickets are not really crickets, but a species of shieldback katydid. From time to time, large populations of Mormon crickets will harm rangeland plants, which are also used as forage for cattle. Mormon crickets got their name in 1848, when hordes of the insects began to eat the crops of early Mormon pioneers in Utah. The story goes that when the settlers prayed for help, hordes of seagulls suddenly appeared and ate enough crickets to save their crops — and their lives.
The main issue is that these insects are a native part of the ecosystem and that much of the area that is slated to be sprayed is public land — land that is supposed to be managed for many uses, not just cattle grazing. To address this problem and provide meaningful feedback, I have contacted a lawyer to see if a recent court ruling on the large-scale spraying of pesticides for tussock moths would have any bearing on the spraying for Mormon crickets. The recent ruling stopped all Btk spraying on about 650,000 acres of Douglas-fir forests on national forestland in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington state for the control of tussock moths.
I have also contacted an expert on grasshoppers in an attempt to get the latest information on the impact of using these pesticides over large areas, alternatives to pesticides control, and the benefits that these insects provide to rangeland ecosystems. (Mormon crickets can be an important food source for a variety of wildlife.) Today, I am just pulling all of this information together and reading it. Once I have gathered and digested the information, it will be time to write it up in a coherent manner and send it to the official in charge of the project.
Other projects I have going today include revising a chapter for one of our upcoming books (more on that in the following days), updating a presentation on endangered invertebrates I will give at Lewis and Clark College tomorrow, and working on reports and proposals to foundations.
But the big issue I am working on today involves monarch butterflies. Most people have heard the story of the monarch: Each year, tens of millions of them migrate to overwinter in fragments of the Oyamel fir forest in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico. What most people do not know is that the monarch butterfly is divided into two populations by the Rocky Mountains. The western population of monarchs makes a shorter migration, often only a few hundred miles, to overwinter at more than 300 sites along the California coast, from north of San Francisco to the Mexican border. Each site is small, most containing less than 20,000 individuals in isolated groves of trees. But like their relatives that fly to Mexico, the California monarchs are threatened. Development, disease of the trees in which the butterflies overwinter, poor management at the sites, and weather fluctuations are leading to declines in the overwintering populations. During the winter of 2001-2, these sites harbored approximately 1.5 million monarchs. This winter estimates vary, from 1 million to as few as 200,000 — perhaps the lowest count in a decade.
The Xerces Society has been working to protect monarchs in California since the late 1980s, when Xerces founder Robert Michael Pyle started the California Monarch Project. We are hoping to reinvigorate that project by updating the information we have on the monarch overwintering sites and revising the Conservation And Management Guidelines For Preserving Monarch Butterfly Migration And Overwintering Habitat In California, produced by the society in the 1980s.
This project is particularly timely, because the California Coastal Commission (the agency responsible for management along California’s coast) is updating its local coastal plans. We are hoping to work with monarch scientists to update the guidelines and use them to promote good stewardship of the overwintering sites.
It’s now late and I am trying to get out the door, which is not always as easy as it seems, what with last-minute changes to a proposal that needs to be sent tomorrow, discussions on how to proceed with editing a CD-ROM we are writing, and, of course, the not-so-important side conservations I get into along the way. More news from my week tomorrow.
Wednesday, 9 Apr 2003
Education is an important part of our work at the Xerces Society. Each year, we speak to thousands of people from schools, garden clubs, and conservation groups. In the last year, we have reached out to nursery managers, land managers, scientists, and others. We talked to hundreds of people from watershed groups, native tribes, and agencies through workshops on how to use macroinvertebrates in water-quality monitoring. We are also working on a variety of other education projects as the summer approaches.
Today I spoke to about 15 students in the invertebrate zoology class and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. My talk was entitled “Endangered Invertebrates: The Case for Greater Attention to Invertebrate Conservation,” and centered around the need to protect habitat for these vital organisms. The students were attentive (I remember plenty of times I did not pay attention when I was an undergrad!) and asked some insightful questions: Can we really grow our food without using pesticides? How does the use of genetically engineered crops affect insects? What about cloning endangered species?
Some students expressed interest in our volunteer butterfly-monitoring program, and in volunteering to expand our endangered-species database. The student-run conservation group talked about getting involved in a science project that would help the Xerces Society. The professor, Greta Binford, wants to help her students with these projects. All in all, I’d say it was a very successful discussion.
I have just returned home from the talk and have been greeted with great fanfare by my two dogs. Even my cat joined in. I work out of my home a couple of days a week. It allows me to get a lot of work done without some of the distractions of the office — although I do need to make sure I don’t succumb to the temptation to go out into the sunny yard, where we have planted lots of native plants to attract bees, butterflies, and birds. At least I can listen to the birdsong and feel the sunshine through the window. Better than nothing! Small places, like our backyard, can be a great benefit to wildlife if they are planted with the right plants and managed in the right way.
Many people do not realize the important role pollinating insects play in our lives. These insects pollinate many of our food crops, including apples, pears, berries, and many vegetables. About 15-30 percent of the food we eat couldn’t be grown without pollinators. Pollinators also provide food and shelter to wild animals by pollinating many wild plants. Most people also don’t know that the most important pollinators are native bees. When you think of bees, you may think of honeybees. These were introduced from Europe and although they are very important pollinators of agricultural crops, it is really the over 4,000 native bee species in North America that are the key pollinators of our environment. Bees can also be beautiful to watch. They can be iridescent green, shiny blue, or striped white and black. Most are also very docile, unlike the defensive social wasps and honey bees. (If you’ve been stung lately, it was probably by a yellow jacket, which is actually a wasp.) To help people protect pollinators, the Xerces Society is wrapping up work on the Pollinator Conservation Handbook. We have actually just finished the final chapter! The book is designed to help guide people through the process of enhancing any habitat to benefit pollinator insects. It has been a great team effort. Matthew Shepherd (director of the Xerces Pollination Program), Steve Buchman (author of The Forgotten Pollinators and founder of Bee Works), Mace Vaughan (Xerces staff entomologist) and I have all worked for over six months to pull together what we hope is a coherent and compelling depiction of how anyone with a backyard (or the manager of a large open space) can help stem the decline of pollinators by planting the right native plants, creating nesting and egg-laying sites, ensuring there are sheltered, undisturbed places for pupation and overwintering, and avoiding the use of pesticides.
The book is a couple of months overdue but we are now in editing mode and pulling together the color photographs needed to illustrate our ideas. We will have the book on bookstore shelves by late May. And as I look over my own yard, I can see that the work I have done is paying off. I have two different species of native bees (a mason bee and a yellow-faced bumblebee) as well as a surphid fly (all important pollinators) inspecting flowers right out side my door.
Well, happily, it is now time to pick up my daughter at school. It’s a beautiful day out but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow, so I guess I should take advantage of the weather while I can by going for a good bike ride by the river. Talk to you soon.
Thursday, 10 Apr 2003
Fundraising is one of those tasks that always seems to get pushed to the bottom of the list of things to do. Most people who work for nonprofits take on the low pay and long hours because we want to make a difference. It is often difficult to pull myself away from the work I feel so strongly about to go in search of money, even though I know that fundraising is undoubtedly the most important task for our organization. Without funds we cannot work!
So today was my day to catch up on fundraising. I am working on our spring appeal, a report, and new proposal to a foundation that funded our endangered-species program. Luckily, I have Dave Johnson on staff as membership and development coordinator. Dave manages all of our membership databases, handles all of the mail, enters all of the donations, ensures that mailings go out on time, and researches potential foundations and major donors. We work together on our spring and fall appeals, major donor letters, and proposal writing.
The spring appeal is sent to all of our members who did not respond to our fall appeal. Members that have given us dues in the last few months don’t receive the spring appeal, either. (If any members are reading this — send in your contribution today and save us the time and resources of sending you a spring appeal!)
Usually, it comes together like this: First, Dave and I brainstorm an idea for the appeal. The fall appeal revolved around the notion that many invertebrates spend the winter hibernating as larvae or overwintering as pupae or eggs. But unlike many of these invertebrates, the Xerces Society works through the winter to accomplish our mission. For the spring appeal, we decided on a straightforward approach. “Xerces has embarked on what will be a very ambitious season of invertebrate conservation and we need your help!” Once we have the idea, I write up the draft and Dave helps craft it into the final product. I have just sent the draft off to Dave to edit.
For proposals, the ideas come straight out of our program planning. Project staff write a draft of a proposal (in the case of endangered species, I write the proposals) based on our strategic planning. I then work with them to hone the product and shape it to meet the needs of funders. Dave helps further edit and refine the proposals as well.
In between my work on fundraising today, I have many small issues to deal with, including a long conference call with the steering committee of the Butterfly Conservation Initiative. The Xerces Society has joined with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense, and numerous zoos and butterfly houses to bring together nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to aid the recovery of imperiled butterflies in North America. The goal is to restore endangered butterfly populations and work to protect vulnerable butterflies from becoming endangered.
Today’s call centered on developing a strategic plan for the initiative, which is still in its formative stages. Unlike other conference calls involving lots of people, the BFCI call ran smoothly and we were able to make progress. (Still, we didn’t make it through the whole agenda, even though we spent an extra 25 minutes on the phone. That’s often the way with these kinds of calls.) In the end, we agreed on a format and timeline for the strategic plan, and we picked people to ensure that each section of the plan will be completed in a timely manner.
We also discussed the “matrix of needs” of the imperiled butterfly species, which the Xerces Society has been developing for the coalition. We need to gather information on threatened, endangered, and imperiled species so that the BFCI can maximize the impact of its recovery work. We discussed how we might fund this work and how we would complete the project. We did not resolve the funding issue, but I did enlist the help of a couple of other people on the steering committee.
So, yet another fundraising task looms: looking for funding to protect imperiled butterflies. That seems like a nice segue for me to get back to my proposal writing and sign off until tomorrow.
Friday, 11 Apr 2003
Crank day! No, I am not talking about drugs (except maybe lots of caffeine). I am talking about a marathon workday here at the Xerces Society. This is the brainchild of Mace Vaughan, the staff entomologist at the society. He was looking for a way to move forward on one of our big projects without waiting until a week before the deadline and having to spend five “crank days” to finish it up. Instead he and Xerces Aquatic Programs Director Jeff Adams will spend one long day each week in hopes that May 15, our big deadline, will not see us walking around like sleep-deprived zombies.
We are working on a CD-ROM and a companion aquatic-invertebrate-monitoring field guide. The guide will lead people through the process of using bugs to monitor water quality in their local streams and rivers. One of the best methods of assessing stream health involves monitoring what tiny aquatic animals (such as mayflies and stoneflies, snails, worms, and other invertebrates) are present or absent. For example, some aquatic invertebrates are very sensitive to increased temperature and decreased oxygen in the water, and some are particularly sensitive to metal contamination. By noting the presence (or absence) of these invertebrates, people can evaluate watershed health and recommend changes to improve it. So Mace and Jeff are “cranking” through the CD- ROM and field guide. Jeff is writing the section on how to identify the insects and Mace is pulling together text and photos for the field guide. I am supposed to be helping them today by drafting one section and editing others, but I have been pulled away to work on several other issues.
Matthew Shepherd (editor of Wings, our magazine) and I went down to check on the photos for our upcoming issue, which will be devoted to slugs and snails. Our magazine always showcases great photographers, and this issue is no different. To ensure the highest quality, we take the photographs for professional color separation. After some minor touch-ups on a few of the photos, we gave the okay for the next step — sending the photos and text to John Laursen at Press-22 for his layout wizardry.
As soon as I returned, I met with a freelance writer about an article she is working on for a noted conservation journal about the challenges of protecting unpopular species. She is interested in writing about a project Xerces worked on several years ago to protect an important area for native bees in Costa Rica. In the end, Xerces was able to this protect this area, which is adjacent to the Lomas Barbudal dry tropical forest biological reserve. This area is critical to the long-term ecological viability of this reserve, because the large, solitary bees that nest there are major pollinators of many tree and vine species in the adjacent forest.
Once that was complete, there was more work to do on the issue of pesticide spraying for Mormon crickets in southern Idaho. Mainly, this work entailed reading through exciting documents such as Grasshoppers: Their Identification, Biology, and Management and the U.S. EPA’s Malathion Registration Eligibility Document: Environmental Effects and Fate. Not good bedtime reading, unless you really want to fall asleep fast!
Crank day continues. I’ll work late, accompanied by pizza and maybe even a beer. Next week this will all start again. I am not sure what the week will bring — except lots of work! But I cannot ask for a better job: doing what I feel is important with people I like. I really could not do it without Xerces’s dedicated staff and the volunteers who help us protect the small things that grace our world.