Low-key group champions butterfly

By: Steve Law, Portland Tribune-Sustainable Life
January 20, 2011

Audubon Society speaks for the birds.

Defenders of Wildlife protects the wolves.

World Wildlife Fund champions the polar bears.

So who’s left to fight for the butterflies, the bees, and the mussels?

It turns out, it’s a little-known national group headquartered in Portland, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Operating from an unmarked office building on bustling Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, the Xerces Society (pronounced Zer-seas) is collaborating on projects in 36 states to protect the “neglected majority” — animals without backbones that constitute more than 95 percent of the world’s critters.

“They’re the basis of every food chain,” says Scott Black, Xerces Society executive director. “Without them, we wouldn’t have most flowering plants.”

Other wildlife conservation groups catch the public eye championing what Black calls “charismatic mega fauna” — species like polar bears, pandas or salmon.

“The closest we get is the Monarch butterfly,” he says.

“We’ve worked on springs where 20 mini-snails may fit on your pinkie finger. Those just aren’t charismatic.”

But the Xerces Society has found a niche working with scientists, farmers, wildlife managers and landowners around the country and overseas. The nonprofit has grown swiftly even through the Great Recession, with 10 full-time staff at its Portland headquarters, plus five more in regional offices in California, Missouri, Minnesota and New Jersey. It has 5,000 dues-paying members.

In November, Xerces made headlines when it filed notice, along with allies, that it intended to sue Yamhill County to protect the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly. The tiny butterfly with a one-inch wingspan survives at only 32 locales in the mid-Willamette Valley, a total habitat of at most 400 acres.

Local roots

The society is named after the Xerces blue butterfly, which graced the San Francisco Bay Area until 1941, when it became the first known U.S. butterfly species to go extinct because of human activity. Robert Pyle, a former Portlander and butterfly guidebook author, came up with the idea in 1971 to form a nonprofit society to protect butterflies.

In the early days, the society was mostly a network of butterfly scientists carrying on correspondence from afar and convening at conferences. The group hired its first staff member in the mid-1980s and opened an office in Portland.

When Black was hired as executive director in 2000, the group had two other part-time staff, plus a quarter-time accountant.

During the years, the group’s research and advocacy work expanded beyond butterflies and moths to encompass bees, beetles, crustaceans, dragonflies, mollusks, flies, freshwater sponges, worms and other species.

Xerces publishes scientific articles, Wings magazine, species identification guides, fact sheets and plant lists. It collaborates with researchers and land managers at the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Those groups are entrusted with assuring biological diversity and protecting at-risk species on their lands. But they often lack in-house expertise in invertebrates, Black says, and turn to Xerces for help doing surveys and evaluating ways to protect the species.

Butterflies remain a priority, but the group also is heavily involved in promoting the revival of native bee species. For many decades, honeybees have come to be the dominant species used to pollinate crops in the U.S. But the recent mysterious decline in honeybee populations, due to what scientists call colony collapse disorder, has caused widespread alarm among farmers and others.

“We think, to have good food security, you might want to think beyond honey bees for pollination,” Black says. There are 4,000 native bee species in the U.S., and many can serve to pollinate crops, as they now do with other plants.

Xerces also is devoting more attention to freshwater mussels, which are found in urban waterways such as Johnson Creek in Southeast Portland and Gresham.

The mussels help filter out pollutants, and often are associated with cleaner waterways and higher salmon populations, Black says.

Not Portland-centric

Xerces is located several blocks east of the trendy part of Hawthorne, next to the Space Room and across the street from Mount Tabor Theater. Yet few know it’s there because it doesn’t post its name on the outside of the offices.

Black says the group has grown so fast it hasn’t gotten around to putting a sign up. But a sign also might prompt walk-in traffic, such as a passerby wanting scientists to identify a dead insect, that the staff don’t have time to handle.

Ironically, Xerces may be better known elsewhere than in its home town.

Though many of its projects are centered in the Northwest, it has found more funding opportunities in California and the Midwest, Black says.

It hasn’t been that easy to raise money for Portland-area community projects, such as in schools and garden groups, Black says. He speculates that’s partly because Northwest battles to protect iconic old-growth forests and salmon have dominated conservation efforts here, leaving less of an opening for Xerces Society efforts. That’s led it to seek opportunities across the globe.

In mid-2010, Black was named to lead a new international butterfly specialist group convened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Defending the Fender’s

One opportunity closer to home came several months ago, when a conservationist working to preserve the Fender’s blue butterfly grew frustrated with Yamhill County’s inaction to protect the dwindling species, and came to Xerces for help.

For years, scientists thought the Fender’s blue butterfly was extinct, until it was rediscovered in 1989.

The butterfly congregates around imperiled Kincaid’s lupine flowers and Willamette daisies. Fully 99 percent of its native prairie habitat has been replaced by farms or urban development, but the butterfly survives in isolated spots, such as Yamhill County roadsides.

“Our prairies in the Willamette Valley are much worse off than the old growth forests of the Northwest,” Black says.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, pressed Yamhill County for several years to protect the Fender’s blue, which is listed as endangered under that act. The federal agency determined that Yamhill County was killing off the butterflies and flowers with its routine roadside grading, mowing and herbicide applications. The agency awarded Yamhill County a $391,000 grant to help develop a Habitat Conservation Plan. But Yamhill County commissioners voted against receiving the grant, prompting the litigation threat.

“We felt time was of the essence for this butterfly,” Black says.

Protecting species via lawsuits is not the normal course of action for the Xerces Society, which is largely made up of scientists who prefer to study animals and help others protect them.

But the society doesn’t want to see another butterfly species go extinct.

Not on its watch, and not in its backyard.

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