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Know the West

Insects — the neglected 99 percent


This December, the Xerces Society celebrated its 40th anniversary. Not bad for a group that champions the spineless.

No, the Xerces Society isn't a fraternity of bank executives or mortgage lenders. It's a Portland, Oregon-based non-profit dedicated to the protection of invertebrates, animals that lack a physical (rather than metaphorical) backbone. Animals like earthworms, bumblebees, and beetles.

Invertebrates are the planet's soil tillers and pollen pimps, its gravediggers and stream cleaners; the animal kingdom's working class. In fact, they represent 99 percent of life on earth. So what better time than now, during "Occupy" mania, for the Xerces Society to celebrate 40 years of advocacy on behalf of invertebrates, Earth's industrious, but neglected, 99 percent?

Robert Michael Pyle, a scientist-poet with a weakness for butterflies, founded The Xerces Society in 1971. He named it after the Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces), the first North American butterfly to go extinct due to human disturbance, in the hopes the insect would "make an apt symbol" and steel the group's resolve to prevent more species losses, says Pyle in a recent issue of Wings, the Xerces Society's biannual magazine.

The Society began as a small volunteer group of Lepidopterists committed to the conservation of moths and butterflies, the insect world's gentle, winged ambassadors. They created the popular Fourth of July Butterfly Count (which the North American Butterfly Association took over in 1993) and the Monarch Project, through which the Society protects the butterfly's feeding and overwintering sites along its migration route in Mexico and California.

But in the early 80's, Xerces went pro, hiring a full-time staff, taking on eminent scientific advisors -- including the great conservation biologist and insectophile E.O. Wilson -- and broadening its focus from Lepidoptera to native pollinators, aquatic invertebrates, freshwater mussels, and endangered insects. The group's work has involved myriad western species such as the Taylor's checkerspot, a vibrant grassland butterfly from the Pacific Northwest; the Siuslaw hairy-necked tiger beetle, a rare predatory beetle that stalks Oregon's beaches for prey, and the western glacier stonefly, a glacier meltwater-dependent invertebrate known from a single area in Montana's Glacier National Park.

The Xerces Society was also one of the first organizations in North America to advocate for river bugs as biomonitors, stressing, with the cooperation of government agencies and other green groups, the connection between aquatic invertebrates (like the western glacier stonefly) and watershed health. And they have been instrumental in protecting native pollinators, creatures whose world economic value has been estimated at $153 billion. What's more, according to researchers with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's Forgotten Pollinators Campaign, pollinators make every third bite of food we eat possible. Yum, Yum, honeybee.

In her book Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World, biologist and author Marlene Zuk mentions Xerces Society scientist Mace Vaughn and his 2006 attempt with fellow researcher John Losey to quantify the economic value of four ecological services rendered by insects, the most numerous invertebrates. The four were pollination, recreation (i.e. "the importance of bugs to hunting, fishing, and wildlife observation, including bird-watching"), dung burial, and pest control (insects play a huge role in controlling crop-pests). "The total bill?" asks Zuk -- $57 billion in the U.S. alone.

What's more, "the sheer magnitude of insect numbers means that they could not be eliminated without leaving a hole so large…that the rest of the world's organisms would be unable to continue their lives," says Zuk. For this reason, protecting and recovering endangered invertebrate species is one the Xerces Society's top priorities.

But bears make better poster children than beetles.

Incredibly, in 1978, just a few years after the Endangered Species Act was established, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate ESA protection for all invertebrates! The Xerces Society wrote letters decrying the plan to every single member of the House. Eventually, Congress comprised, preserving ESA protection for invertebrates but limiting federal protection of "distinct population segments" to vertebrate species. Still, "the Endangered Species Act remains one of the most important environmental laws in the world for the conservation of insects and other invertebrates, and the habitat upon which they depend," says Xerces Society Executive Director, Scott Hoffman Black in testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee. No other U.S. law, he says, specifically protects invertebrates and their habitats.

So, the next time you're "Occupying" your local park for the good of society's working class majority, take a moment to look around you for members of the planet's 99 percent. They might not have cheeky signs or "human microphones" but, thanks to groups like the Xerces Society, their collective voice is loud and clear -- even without a the clamor of a drum circle.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

Image of the endangered El Segundo Blue butterfly, which the Xerces Socity lists as critically imperiled, courtesy Flickr user stonebird

 Image of bumblebee courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

Image of the threatened Oregon silverspot butterfly, which the Xerces Society lists as critically imperiled, courtesy Flickr user USFWS Pacific.