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!