Save the bugs! Oregon society works to save the creepy crawlies

ANDREW KRAMER, Associated Press Writer
Friday, August 15, 2003
©2003 Associated Press
San Francisco Chronicle

PORTLAND, Ore. — Scott Hoffman Black founded a rain forest action group in college in the 1980s, fought to return wolves to Idaho in the 1990s and saved an old-growth forest in California in 2000.
Now he’s turned his attention to bugs.

Black is director of Xerces, a society that takes creepy crawlies seriously. Xerces is dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates — from butterflies and beetles to squids and slugs. It is the only such group in the country, though some other groups focus more narrowly on butterflies.

Based in Portland, with 5,400 members in all 50 states, the society aims to expand the 62 species of clams, 21 snails, 44 insects, 12 spiders and 18 crustaceans protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The group takes its name from the first species of butterfly known to have gone extinct from human activity, the Xerces blue; its habitat became the city of San Francisco.

The society doesn’t argue for protection for all bugs, particularly in the case of disease-bearing insects. But it has opposed some chemical spraying to kill mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus.

“We’re not out to stop the health department from trying to save people if there really is a threat” of West Nile virus, said Black. “We’re not saying that mosquitoes are more important than people. We would never say that. We would never tell that to the families of people with West Nile.”

But spraying can endanger other insects as well as birds and fish. The rare Schaus swallowtail and Miami blue butterflies that live near swamps in the southeast have suffered from West Nile spraying, Black said.
Defending bugs can be tough, and it generates little of the sympathy that attaches to campaigns for Northwest salmon or bald eagles.

In a bitter standoff, Xerces has argued for protection for the only fly ever to make the Endangered Species List, the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly.

“For a fly, it’s pretty darn attractive,” said Mace Vaughn, the society’s staff entomologist.

But it’s still a fly, and a lot of people want to swat it — especially city officials in Colton, Calif.

The pin-sized, orange and brown fly stopped a $10 million project to build baseball fields for the town of about 50,000 east of Los Angeles, and halted construction of a freeway interchange. The projects would have infringed on the fly’s sand dune habitat.

Defense of the fly so angered the City Council that council members took to carrying fly swatters to meetings to symbolize their protest. They are lobbying to take the fly off the endangered list.
“I wouldn’t mind at all if this species just ceased to exist. Not at all,” said City Manager Daryl Parrish. “This fly has cost us a lot of opportunity and money.”

But conservation is not just for eagles and grizzly bears, said Black, who drives a dusty Volvo and wears sandals and a T-shirt to work at his east Portland office.

Congress reaffirmed that insects can be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1984, with some restrictions. The law did not extend protection to pest insects, such as crop-munching locusts, or to subspecies and populations distinct to certain geographic areas.

Black predicts invertebrate conservation will gain appeal in the popular imagination, much as rain and old-growth forest protection movements took off in past decades.

“The concept of preserving invertebrates is at that crucial point where old-growth was 25 years ago,” Black said. “In 20 years, all these little things like bugs, lizards and snails will be popular,” in environmental circles.

The society, founded in 1971, has grown from one entomologist in the 1980s to employ six full-time staff members today. Once appealing primarily to academics and a few bug-loving eccentrics, members now include gardeners and farmers interested in preserving habitat for pollinating insects such as bees, Black said.

The group recently moved to a new, more spacious office in east Portland with an insect zoo of screaming African cockroaches, stick bugs and spiders in tiny terrariums.

On one wall hangs a sketch of a Monarch butterfly, resplendent with its wings outspread to reveal delicate brown eyespots. And for the true bug lovers, a glass case holds huge, preserved tropical beetles sporting horns and beaks and 6-inch millipedes stuck with pins.

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