Butterflies are commonly fierce and often revolting (from a genteel human point of view) but they are beautiful and some of them are in deep trouble.

Hence the Xerces Society, named for an extinct butterfly and dedicated to the proposition that too many butterflies have died.

And not only butterflies. Numerous beetles and other bugs face extinction as their natural homes are converted into superhighways, supermarkets, supersecret installations and other super examples of mankind's messing up the world.

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The society has 500 members, "people who like butterflies," as you might guess, and Roger Pasquier, their treasurer, has just settled in at the Smithsonian Institution where he is working on a book about birds.

Birds eat butterflies. Pasquier is less worried about natural predators, however, than unnatural ones, such as humans bulldozing the meadows.

He arrived here a few months ago from New York where he lived on the 12th floor of a building and saw little, except an occasional monarch flying past.

Manhattan is really no good for butterflies, and he looks forward to seeing a lot, now that he's nearer the good earth, though 21st and M Streets is not actually a butterfly sanctuary either.

Pasquier is trim, neat, well-modulated and 30. His first love is birds, which he began investigating when he was 7, so that by his 20s he knew every bird that lived in the Northeast.

"I did not discover Darwin until I was in the seventh grade," he said - showing that it is never too late to learn, and never mind all the wasted years.

Butterflies and insects, like orchids, dogs, and the living world in general, vary in the most wonderful ways - in size, color, pattern and habitat.

Some of those gorgeous ones you see flitting along a dirt path at the edge of a woodland, on the fringe of a pasture, seem to be the ultimate in a life of indolent bliss, moving at leisure from a patch of sunlight to a bit of shade, done up in blue and vermillion, feasting on the nectar of wild orchids, say, and getting the best to be got from a summer's day.

"I also remember seeing a viceroy imbibing moisture from a dead rabbit," wrote a contributor to one of the society's publications. And some of those indolent butterlies along the forest edge are busy patrolling, defending their territory from other butterflies.

Besides doing what it can to protect the habitat of rare butterlies, the society puts out two magazines and three newsletters a year. It conducts an annual butterfly count on the fourth of July. In this (the forms are only a bit more complicated than the income tax) you report all the butterflies you have seen in a certain area. It should be known that butterfly enthusiasts are capable of examing "100 willow trees but did not find a single butterfly egg . . ."

Willows, in fact, are excellent for several butterflies, and of course milk-weeks of several kinds, and parsley, which is even dearer to the swallow-tails than to the cook, and buddleias and monardas - from time to time the society prints notes on plants that butterflies esteem. The membership of $5 a year is tax deductible. The society has given grants by the World Wildlife Fund and private citizens.

Life is a grim - and perhaps as beautiful - for a butterfly as for anybody else.

It used to be said that the rich and powerful are killing all the butterflies, but that was not really true, unless you mean "humans" when you say "rich and powerful."

Sens. Hatfield and Proxmire are among the Washington members of the society, and the butterfly's protectors include such unlikely patrons as Standard Oil, which has fenced off several acres at one of its installations in Los Angeles to protect the breeding grounds of the El Segundo blue (Philotes battoides allyni).

The Nature Conservancy is negotiating for some land at Antioch, on San Francisco Bay, the ancestral seat of Lange's metalmark. But unfortunately the last Xerces blue was spotted in 1941, on U.S. government land and is now thought to be as extinct as a dinosaur.

A question that will "never finally be decided" is whether it makes sense to preserve species facing extinction. Some people go into a Grade-A tailspin at the thought of any species dying out, while others perhaps finding some inner need to be as rough, tough, hardnosed, lean-jawed, etc., as possible) say to hell with 'em. If they can't make it, well it's a tough world, baby, etc.

Such persons tend to be solicitors about their own silk shirts and electric platinum-plated tookpicks, but the plight of a wild species means no more to them than the plight of a used Kleenex.

Pasquier says a couple of butterflies in the Everglades are threatened and so is the Karner blue, up near Albany, N.Y. That one was dicovered by Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist and great student of the butterfly.

"You may find two pieces of land that seem much the same," said Pasquier, yet one regularly has a certain butterfly and the other never does.

"You may say, 'There is a great deal of the plant that this butterfly's larvae feed on,' but you may overlook the fact that maybe that land does not have the right kind of plants for the butterfly to perch on.

"Butterflies are very particular, not only about the plants on which they lay eggs, but also about the plants on which they perch to take the sun."

Pasquier once spent time at a nature station on Long Island, where people go to study terns. There he discovered butterflies at the age of 22.

The wonderful orange monarchs, he discovered, migrate from eastern Canada to northwestern Mexico. Not in great monotonous predictable waves (as birds migrate) but in spurts. Some monarchs migrate, some do not. Some go all the way, some don't. By banding monarchs (a small paper tab. on the wing), more is being learned of their habits, for even in so showy and obvious a butterfly as the monarch, some mysteries remain.

"Lepidopterists are closer to the ecology, I often think, than birders," [WORD ILLEGIBLE] as stomps, golf balls and the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]Pasquier said. Birders go stomping through the woods trampling the hepaticas, hell-bent on catching up wiht the sulfur-toed ergoteen or something, while butterfliers keep in mind that no weed is so humble that it may not serve as a perch for something splendid.

"To me," said Pasquier, looking back on butterfly walks with friends, "it is a great pleasure to set out with people who are so knowledgeable."

You may wonder about those monarchs that Pasquier used to see [WORD ILLEGIBLE] past his 12th-floor windows in New York. Pretty high up, after all.

"Well if a butterfly is going to go from 72nd to 73rd Street, he doesn't have much choice but to fly high. Things go where they have to."