The Birth of Xerces

By Robert Michael Pyle

How did the Xerces Society come to be? I hear that question almost as often as I read apocryphal versions of the answer. Therefore it seems appropriate to record the official account of the birth of Xerces for the archives and for the curious reader.

In 1971-72, I had the good and surprising fortune to be the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship for study of insect conservation in England. The environmentally sensitive public mood following the first Earth Day made this a reasonable proposition, I suppose, to the government; and John Heath’s offer of a place to study at the Monks Wood Experimental Station, epicenter of insect conservation activity, made it possible.

I cannot begin to describe here that marvelous year of learning among scientists of Monks Wood. Fully six public servants were engaged more or less full-time in research pertaining to rare invertebrate conservation at this famous British field laboratory. Many others participated on a greater or lesser basis. Based in the Biological Records Center, where the great British fauna and flora distribution maps were developed, my supervisor was John Heath. My other primary mentors included Michael Morris, Jack Dempster, Jeremy Thomas, Paul Harding, Ernie Pollard, Marny Hall, Michael Skelton, Eric Duffey, Norman Moore, Colin Welch, Michael Way, Max Hooper, Terry Wells, Brian Davis, Mike Schofield, and Kenneth Mellanby, among others – all familiar names to nature conservationists on both sides of the Atlantic. Counting in the British Butterfly Conservation Society, the Joint Committee for the Conservation of British Insects, the country Naturalists’ Trusts, and many other groups involved in insect habitat management, I was surfeited with relevant instruction and example.

However, in November of 1971 I experienced a distressing time of doubt when I wondered what it would all come to. How would we begin to emulate these advanced efforts back home? Little structure and less interest seemed to exist for doing so. In that querulous frame of mind I attended a meeting of the British Entomological and Natural History Society in London on December ninth. Grahame Howarth of the British Museum (Natural History) spoke on the efforts to save the large blue (Maculinea arion) in England. He ably outlined the history of this endangered butterfly which, despite nominal protection for half a century, continued to drop out of reserve after reserve. He concluded on a rather pessimistic note as regards the British large blue, but with an upbeat message: “If we lose our large blues,” he stated, “let us make them a symbol for vigilance, so that we shall never see another British butterfly become extinct if we can help it to survive.”

Grahame Howarth’s words turned out to be prophetic. The large blue did indeed become extinct in Britain, for reasons that Jeremy Thomas’s elegant research discovered too late. And the loss did spark a new vigilance, culminating in the Butterfly Year, a national campaign in the early ‘eighties that netted many thousands of pounds on behalf of rare British butterflies. Although the reign of Margaret Thatcher has seen a massive retreat from government-sponsored wildlife conservation, private bodies are struggling to take up the slack, aided by the impetus and funds raised by Butterfly Year.

But Mr. Howarth’s address had another, more immediate effect. As I returned from Huntingdon that night, I turned over in my mind the idea of an extinct butterfly as a symbol for a movement. It occurred to me that we in America had already lost such a butterfly, the Xerces blue, extirpated on the San Francisco Peninsula in the early ‘forties. The “X” of Xerces, I imagined, would make a perfect symbol for extinction, and could be wrought into a butterfly shape. Spontaneously, the concept of the Xerces Society arose. I could scarcely withhold my enthusiasm to tell someone about it, but the passengers in the train compartment with me all had their noses in The Times or The Telegraph, so I had to wait for a public pronouncement. But the birth of Xerces occurred that night nonetheless, on British Rail’s main line north somewhere between King’s Cross and Huntingdon. On December 9, 1971, the Xerces Society was founded.

I hit John Heath with the idea the next morning and he gave me his fullest, most enthusiastic support. Quickly I had a postcard printed, addressed “To everyone who wants to help perpetuate rich, natural populations of butterflies.” The card headlined the facts that butterflies were declining, habitat protection was the main front, and no further extinctions should be tolerated. I sent it to everyone I could think of who might be interested in joining or helping the nascent organization.

Serendipity strikes when it wants to and sometimes that’s just when you need it. Right about then I spotted an article by Jo Brewer in Audubon entitled “To Kill a Butterfly.” Of course I knew of Jo from her wonderful book, Wings in the Meadow, but we’d never met. I wrote her immediately and asked her to become Associate Director. Jo graciously accepted, scarcely knowing what she was getting herself into, and thereby became the de facto co-founder of the Xerces Society. Without her energy and dedication, the idea might well have been still-born. Ivy LeMon became the next member, followed by a virtual flood of interest. Xerces had taken wing.

As my time at Monks Wood drew toward a close, I heard from Charles Remington, co-founder and then-president of the Lepidopterists’ Society. The 25th Annual Meeting of the Society was to take place in San Antonio that summer, and Professor Remington hoped to feature a symposium on Endangered and Extinct Lepidoptera. He asked if I might come and share something of the British experience in the field. Early Xerces supporters Bernard and Gladys Sherak made that possible. At the Texas meeting, Xerces had its coming-out. Once members of the sister-society realized that our purpose was not to ban collecting, they extended a warm and cordial reception, sharing as they did many of our concerns. Jo and I met in San Antonio and chartered the near future of Xerces. Charles Remington suggested that I continue related studies in New Haven and bring Xerces with me.

If John Heath served as doctor-in-attendance at Xerces’ birth, Dr. Remington assumed the role of godfather, facilitating the sensible growth of the group in every way. Much of the early development of Xerces occurred at Yale over the next few years, including the first annual meeting in 1974. Attendance by eminent entomologists Miriam Rothschild and Alexander B. Klots helped lend stature and credence to the young, relatively unknown association. Over three years, Jo and I shuttled between Boston and New Haven. Our first secretary, Joan DeWind, inveigled pro bono legal assistance for incorporation from her husband Bill’s firm. A board of Directors was assembled, Roger Pasquier took firm control of the treasury, and Atala and Wings, the journal and newsletter, were launched.

Thus was Xerces born. Many devoted people have helped in its upbringing. Now, with the Society as a full-fledged conservation organization, we can look back on more than forty years of conservation success. Rare species have been protected, and their habitats secured. Tens of thousands of people have attended training courses and workshops or help with citizen-science projects. Hundreds of thousands of acres of new habitat have been created on farms and in parks, and thousands of gardeners are welcoming bees and butterflies to their yards. But there is far more to be done. Conserving the diversity of invertebrates is, after all, the biggest job in the world.