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Xerces' Holistic Approach to Conservation

By Scott Hoffman Black on 16. January 2020
Scott Hoffman Black

Science, education, outreach, and advocacy are all vital parts of a holistic approach to creating change that benefits all of nature.

This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Xerces’ biannual publication WingsClick to view the full Fall 2019 issue.

We at the Xerces Society view our work as an interconnected whole rather than as separate parts. To achieve conservation success, we must understand both science and policy. We need to inspire people and at the same time empower them with the tools they require. We also should celebrate accomplishment and ensure that those who take action receive the credit and appreciation they deserve. This holistic approach is built into our core values: Xerces is a science-based conservation organization that works with partners from diverse backgrounds. Using applied research, engaging in advocacy, providing educational resources, and addressing policy implications, we endeavor to make meaningful long-term conservation a reality.

We continue to have success with this approach—working to understand what drives declines in key species and groups of species, and identifying how best to restore and manage habitats for these important animals. Our staff members have spent the last year testing cover-crop mixes on farms, finding the best plants to thrive under different scenarios for site management, and working with university researchers to model corridors through which pollinators can move in the face of climate change.


A woman in a red rain coat and gray hiking pants stands on the edge of a rocky mountain stream, holding a net, and scanning the water carefully. She is in a mountain meadow with yellow flowers.
Research conducted by Xerces’ conservation biologists underpins the organization’s conservation work and our outreach. (Photo: Xerces Society / Candace Fallon)


Xerces staff have also completed surveys for rare butterflies and caddisflies, and they’ve visited sites where we are seeing die-offs of freshwater mussels in order to better understand what is causing these mysterious losses. The devastating reduction in western monarch populations—down by more than 99 percent since the 1980s—has led us to survey the butterfly’s breeding habitat across the western states and to undertake a study that collects milkweed and tests it for pesticide residues. 

This work is supported by networks of hundreds of community scientists. Field work by volunteers with the Thanksgiving and New Year’s counts of monarchs at California overwintering sites identified the magnitude of the butterfly’s losses so that we could sound the alarm. It also clarified both the need to focus our efforts on restoring early- and late-season nectar plants and milkweed, and the urgency of engaging additional managers to restore the forested groves where western monarchs overwinter. This combination of applied and community science pays off by allowing us to use funding efficiently, prioritizing those conservation actions that will have the greatest impact. 


Two women in coats and knit hats lean on a wooden fence and look upwards, in the distance, with binoculars. Though what they are looking at is not shown in the frame, they are participating in a monarch observation project.
Field work by volunteers with the Western Monarch Thanksgiving and New Year’s Counts at California overwintering sites identified the magnitude of the butterfly’s losses so that we could sound the alarm in January 2019, and pursue key conservation efforts with partners from then on. (Photo: Xerces Society / Emma Pelton)


We are applying this same approach to bumble bees. Xerces scientists are conducting surveys and training hundreds of people to generate data on these vital animals. We’ve developed regional bumble bee atlas projects, harnessing volunteers to gather location and life-history information in Idaho, Oregon, Nebraska, and Washington, and we plan to add more states soon. 

Our goal is to achieve positive transformation in policies as well as in people’s attitudes and behaviors. To do so it is vital to promote good science. Xerces conservation biologist Emma Pelton and I collaborated with Matt Forister of the University of Nevada at Reno to write a paper, “Declines in insect abundance and diversity: We know enough to act now.” The article, published this spring in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, lays out the science showing insect declines and the actions needed to reverse them. Our effort was amplified by major media outlets, including The Washington Post, and has led to keynote talks at several conferences. 


A fuzzy, yellow and black striped bumble bee with a rust-colored patch on its back clings to a cluster of pale purple flowers. The background, which is blurry, is bright green.
Thanks to the Xerces Society's and partners' efforts, in 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) became the first bumble bee to be listed as endangered in the continental United States, and we continue to serve as a voice for "the little things that run the world." (Photo: Xerces Society / Sarina Jepsen)


Advocacy is an important part of Xerces’ mission, an effort rendered even more important by the Trump administration’s assault on science and conservation. Whether it is ensuring that the Farm Bill includes adequate funding for pollinator conservation, that disappearing species are protected under a strong Endangered Species Act, or that local policies are enacted to protect habitat from pesticides, we continue to advocate for polices that protect insects, the environment—and, in the end, all of us.

Science also informs our education and outreach. Over the last year, we reached more than twenty-four thousand people through presentations, field days, conferences, short courses, webinars, and other events. Each of the trainings we deliver draws upon the latest science and conservation practice to meet the needs of its specific audience. Find an upcoming event by clicking here!

Ultimately, all of these efforts are directed toward making our landscapes more hospitable, and they have helped us to protect and restore more than two and a half million acres for invertebrates in the last decade. Whether it is working with farmers to improve farm management through Bee Better Certified, providing guidance on protecting fresh water mussels, or helping affiliates of Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA restore habitats in neighborhoods, we have found that science, education, outreach, and advocacy are all vital parts of a holistic approach to creating change that benefits all of nature.


Further Reading

Learn more about the Xerces Society's mission and work.

Find a community science opportunity near you!

This piece originally appeared in the Xerces Society publication WingsRead the full Fall 2019 issue.


Scott Black is an internationally renowned conservationist who has been at the forefront of the conservation movement for three decades. Scott’s work has led to protection and restoration of habitat on millions of acres of rangelands, forests, and farmland as well as protection for many endangered species. He is an author of the best-selling Attracting Native Pollinators and Gardening for Butterflies and has written more than two hundred other publications including a recent chapter on climate change and insects. Scott serves on the science advisory committee of Nature-Based Climate Solutions, which brings together stakeholders to accelerate the implementation of carbon removal strategies that simultaneously improve the social, economic, and environmental resilience of local communities.

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