A look at the Xerces Society
By Joel Preston Smith
Consider the lowly Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. It’s a fly. Worse, it’s a loner fly, lacking even the nagging sociability of the common housefly. Worse still, it’s an ugly fly, with a pea head and bulbous, iridescent green alien eyes bobbing over the distended, dun body of an emaciated cow, teetering on six dwarfish hairy little legs. In its most graceful pose, perched atop a dainty flower, it resembles a fuzzy, sun-bleached turd into which someone has attempted to drive a half dozen copper nails.
Who could love such a bug? That charitable task falls upon Scott Hoffman Black and the staff of the Xerces Society, whose passion is protecting the buzzing, colorful, spineless, creepy, crawly, acid-squirting, tentacle waving, denizens of dirt, water and air—the invertebrates.
Founded in 1971 as a butterfly-conservation group by lepidopterist and nature writer Robert Michael Pyle, the agency vastly expanded its mission after Black, a former oil rigger turned entomologist cum activist, took over as executive director in 2000. Black, along with Mace Vaughan, Xerces’ conservation director, envisioned an organization that focused on conserving habitat.
“Some people thought of us as ‘those wacky bug nuts,’ or ‘the butterfly people,’” Black, 51, admits. “When I came on board, land managers were not thinking about invertebrates as a whole. Certainly politicians were not concerned.
We still appreciate butterflies. We love them. But we wanted to work on all creatures that didn’t have a voice.”
A meaner, greener Xerces emerged—one which wasn’t afraid to belly up to the corporate boardroom and preach the gospel of burrowing mayflies, grasshoppers, cave spiders and tiger beetles. Black, sighs, “I went to a lot of meetings with government officials, business people and funders. It wasn’t exactly blank stares, but it was close.”
After nearly three decades on the fringes of the conservation movement, the newly metamorphosed Xerces Society was vaulted into the public eye by Colony-Collapse Disorder (CCD) among European honeybees. By 2005, European honeybee colonies on the continent were in such a state of decline that, for the first time since 1922, U.S. farmers were forced to import honeybees outside North America. There’s been no definitive answer as to the cause, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has named “new bee pests or parasites, environmental or nutritional stress (and) pesticides” as possible culprits.
The National Research Council, headquartered in Washington, D.C., notes that honeybee pollination, essential to the propagation of at least 90 commercially grown crops, is worth as much as $18.9 billion annually to the U.S. economy. A recent paper by Cornell University and the Xerces Society notes that native pollinators may contribute as much as $3 billion more. Of those, bumblebees appear to be of most concern, with six species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as “in decline.” One, Bombus franklini, or Franklin’s bumblebee, is feared to be extinct in its native range of southern Oregon and northern California, according to Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Coordinator for Xerces.
Few farmers could appreciate the value of invertebrates and their advocates more than entomologist and farmer Mike Omeg, who harvests 400-acres of cherry orchards in The Dalles, Ore. To replace the legwork once provided gratis by bees, flies and other pollinators in the Columbia River Gorge, Omeg Farms shelled out $24,000 for roughly 400 rented beehives last April. “Without them, we wouldn’t be in business,” says Omeg, who earned his master’s of science in entomology from Oregon State University in 2001.
Omeg has become something of a crusader for Xerces’ Native Pollinator Program, which teaches farmers and landowners the logic of invertebrate conservation, and the practical know-how of cultivating habitat for pollinators. Omeg planted a quarter acre in catnip, blanketflower, goldenrod and other native plants, to create what he terms an insectary–an insect nursery.
“It’s hard to quantify the benefits of putting in an insectary,” Omeg notes, “because it’s difficult to quantify how well the native pollinators are working on our crop. But it’s obvious that the more bees we have working in our orchard, the more fruit we get. It’s just common sense.”
Faced with an economic nightmare—the looming failure of U.S. fruit and berry crops due to declining pollinators—farmers, scientists and the American public are slowly learning to tolerate, if not outright appreciate, the lesser, bestial orders.
“CCD has had a silver lining,” Black observes, “in that there’s nothing Xerces could have done to get the media attention that CCD gave us. People started thinking about insects, and how we might not eat without them, about what we need to do to preserve them.”
Black says it’s still not an easy task. “Unlike other issues, like preserving old growth, like protecting salmon, we have to work to even get our foot in the door. We first have to convince them that protecting invertebrates is important.”
The Dehli Sands flower-loving fly, is a case in point. The fly is believed to inhabit no more than a dozen small, silty dunes in and around the towns of Colton and Fontana, California, roughly 50 miles east of Los Angeles. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the species in 1993 as the first federally protected fly under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), land developers and city officials swelled up, turned blue and descended into anaphylactic shock. Deirdre Bennett, the mayor of Colton, started carrying a giant flyswatter to city functions, and appeared on CNN and at a Congressional public hearing in Colton, waving the swatter menacingly, claiming the insect would be the ruination of her community, that it was stopping the construction of a needed hospital, that it had been seen eating garbage in a vacant lot, that it was impeding economic progress. It should be quashed, along with the ESA and the worthless creatures listed therein.
City officials lobbied Congress to remove protection for the fly, and Congressman Richard Pombo (Republican chair of the House Resources Committee, with oversight of natural resource issues) scheduled a field hearing on the ESA on Sept. 10, 2004 in Fontana.
Terry Wold, conservation program director for the nearby San Gorgonio, Calif. chapter of the Sierra Club, suspected Ponbo would use the fly in an attempt to cripple the Act. So she sent out “a distress signal” to Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club national headquarters, and to Xerces.
“Pombo and Bennett were saying the fly was destroying Colton and Fontana,” Wold scoffs. “I mean, it’s not Godzilla. It’s a fly, for chrissake.”
She adds, “I couldn’t get the national office of the Sierra Club interested, but I heard from Xerces in two hours.” Black promised support, and delivered quickly. When Pombo convened his field hearing four days later, Wold and ESA supporters challenged every allegation against the garbage-munching, tax-thieving, town-killing insect with a series of uncomfortable truths prepared by Xerces and seven other eco groups. Supporters countered that a land trade had already been finalized with the assistance of the USFWS, so that a new hospital could be constructed in Fontana, and that city officials had wasted taxpayer dollars on lobbying Congress to delist the fly (only the USFWS can removed a species from endangered status).
By illustrating the core truths about the fly and the economic realities of Colton and Fontana, Xerces (along with its partners) undermined Pombo’s attack on the fly and the ESA. “It was the beginning of the end of them trying to gut the law.”
Pombo’s end-run failed. He’d earned the ire of ESA supporters throughout California, and in 2006, with organizing efforts of Defenders of Wildlife, Pombo lost his seat to Democratic challenger Jerry McNerney in the only seat overturned that year in California.
Wold says Pombo’s demise started with a call from Scott Hoffman Black. The ESA is still intact, and several politicians have learned that the Dehli Sands flower-loving fly does not pitch beer bottles and disposable diapers out the windows of pickup trucks.
Black argues that the fly fracas illustrates the mistake of focus exclusively on “saving a species,” especially an unpopular one, when the critical issue is preserving its habitat. “To city officials [in Colton and Fontana], protecting a fly was ludicrous. To us it made perfect sense. We shouldn’t be destroying the very last of an ecosystem.”
People are starting to listen, Black says, even when Xerces is preaching the salvation of flies. In 2000, Xerces had a staff of three and a budget of $200,000. The agency has grown to 10 full-time staff and operates under a $800,000 umbrella, funded in part by more than 4000 members and foundations such as the Turner Foundation.
“When I started,” Black explains, “people didn’t understand what we were trying to do —which is preserve all the species within the ecosystem, not just invertebrates. More and more we get calls from people who say, ‘We need your help.”
Joel Preston Smith is a Portland-based writer whose work can be found at