California Native Plant Society

Rare Plant Program

Conserving Plants with Laws and Programs under the Department of Fish and Game

Sandra Morey and Diane Ikeda (from CNPS Inventory, 6th Edition, 2001)

California's diversity of native plants is unequaled by any other state in the Nation, a reflection of its diverse and varied landscapes and climates. As steward of the State's wildlife resources, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) has been working for more than 20 years to conserve California's native plants and natural plant communities.

The DFG's mission, "to manage California's diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public," is a reflection of its broad responsibilities, much expanded from the time when DFG was known primarily for managing California's wildlife for recreational hunting and fishing. Today, amid the pressures associated with human population growth, economic expansion, and multiple and often conflicting land use strategies, the DFG works cooperatively with federal, state, and local governments, businesses, conservation organizations, and citizens to conserve all wildlife, including native plant populations and habitats.

Legal Framework 

The legal framework and authority for the State's program to conserve plants is woven from four pieces of legislation: the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), the Native Plant Protection Act (NPPA), the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and the Natural Community Conservation Planning Act (NCCPA).

Native Plant Protection Act 

The Legislature formally recognized the plight of rare and endangered plants in 1977 with the passage of the Native Plant Protection Act (NPPA). The NPPA directs the DFG to carry out the Legislature's intent to "preserve, protect and enhance rare and endangered plants in this State." The NPPA gave the California Fish and Game Commission the power to designate native plants as endangered or rare, and to require permits for collecting, transporting, or selling such plants.

California Endangered Species Act 

In 1984 the state Legislature enacted the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) in recognition of the tremendous threats facing California's native plant and animal populations and their habitats. This legislation declares that deserving plants and animals will be given protection by the state because they are of ecological, educational, historical, recreational, aesthetic, economic, and scientific value to the people of the state. CESA established that it is state policy to conserve, protect, restore, and enhance endangered and threatened species and their habitats.

The CESA expanded upon the original NPPA and enhanced legal protection for plants. To align with Federal regulations, CESA created the categories of "threatened" and "endangered" species. It converted all "rare" animals into the Act as threatened species, but did not do so for rare plants. Thus, there are three listing categories for plants in California: rare, threatened, and endangered.

The following definitions are found within the two acts (Fish and Game Code Sections 1901, 2062, and 2067). A native species is endangered when "its prospects of survival and reproduction are in immediate jeopardy from one or more causes." A native species is threatened when "although not presently threatened with extinction, it is likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future in the absence of the special protection and management efforts..." A native plant is rare when "although not presently threatened with extinction, it is in such small numbers throughout its range that it may become endangered if its present environment worsens." The CESA also creates a "candidate" category. A candidate is a taxon that has been officially noticed by the Commission as being under review by the DFG for addition to the threatened or endangered species lists.

CESA also allows the Department to issue permits for scientific collecting and research activities and for the take of candidate and State-listed species that is incidental to otherwise lawful activities.

California Environmental Quality Act 

California has a strong state law that provides for protection of species and natural communities during the land use planning process. This law is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), enacted in 1970. CEQA requires government agencies to consider and disclose environmental impacts of projects and to avoid or mitigate them where possible. Under CEQA, public agencies must prepare environmental documents to disclose environmental impacts of a project and to identify mitigation measures and project alternatives. Through this process, the public can review proposed project plans and influence the process through public comment.

Natural Community Conservation Planning Act 

In 1991, the Natural Community Conservation Planning Act (NCCPA) was enacted to promote long?term protection of species and habitats via cooperative, landscape-level planning (see Cooperative Conservation Planning section below). The NCCPA authorizes the development of Natural Community Conservation Plans (NCCP). An NCCP plans for the conservation of natural communities by using an ecosystem approach and encouraging cooperation between private and government interests. The plan identifies and provides for the regional or area wide protection and perpetuation of plants, animals, and their habitats, while allowing compatible land use and economic activity. An NCCP seeks to anticipate and prevent the controversies caused by species listings by focusing on the long-term stability of natural communities.

Approved NCCPs provide the basis for issuance of state authorizations for the take of species specifically identified in the plan, whether or not a species is listed as threatened or endangered, and may provide the basis for issuance of federal endangered species permits. It is important to note that the NCCP process must ensure consistency with the federal and state Endangered Species Acts.


Headquarters Programs to Conserve Plants 

At the DFG's statewide headquarters in Sacramento, programs that focus on plant conservation are primarily within the Habitat Conservation Division. The Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB) is one of the Department of Fish and Game's most visible and successful programs. The CNDDB tracks location and status information on rare plants, animals, and natural plant communities (see The California Natural Diversity Database in this volume).

The Species Conservation and Recovery Program provides information and guidance on plant and animal conservation from a statewide perspective to other Department programs and to the public. This program coordinates statewide funding for conservation of rare, threatened, and endangered plants, participates in recovery planning, reviews listing petitions and legislation, and provides biological input into landscape-level conservation planning efforts such as Natural Communities Conservation Plans and Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) (see Cooperative Conservation Planning section below).

Regional Programs to Conserve Plants 

Biologists and botanists in the DFG's six regions carry out diverse plant conservation activities, focusing on "on-the-ground" activities. They carry out research, management, and monitoring programs for rare, threatened, and endangered plants, and guide habitat restoration for native plants on Department lands. They work with local governments and other partners to see that plants are adequately protected in landscape-level planning efforts such as NCCPs and HCPs, advise the public on projects that may impact or benefit native plant populations, review environmental documents, participate in recovery planning programs, and develop educational programs. Some of these activities are described below.

Plant Conservation Activities 

A variety of funding sources is available to the DFG to promote recovery of endangered plant populations and to restore degraded habitats. Funding sources include the California Endangered Species Tax Check-Off Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service support under the Federal Endangered Species Act Section 6 provisions for cooperation with the states, the Tobacco Tax and Health Initiative (Proposition 99), the Environmental License Plate Fund, mitigation funds, and funding under CALFED Bay-Delta Program and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA).

Habitat Protection 

Conserving species in their natural settings, their own habitat, is key to ensuring their long-term survival. The Department of Fish and Game protects, maintains, and enhances plant and animal populations and natural communities through direct acquisition of habitat, conservation easements on private lands, and management agreements with public and private agencies and organizations. The Department works with conservation partners including CNPS, The Nature Conservancy, local land trusts, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Parks and Recreation, and other public agencies, organizations, and private landowners to promote conservation of all wildlife resources. The DFG acquires, leases, and manages suitable lands, which are approved by the Wildlife Conservation Board.

Currently, the Department administers over 866,000 acres in California, much of which has been designated by the Fish and Game Commission as Wildlife Areas or Ecological Reserves. Over 11,000 acres have been acquired in fee title specifically for the protection of endangered plant populations and their habitats. Examples of DFG reserves that protect rare plants include Table Bluff in Humboldt County, North Table Mountain in Butte County, Pine Hill and Salmon Falls in El Dorado County, Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz County, Stone Corral Ecological Reserve in Tulare County, the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo and Kern counties, Baldwin Lake in San Bernardino County, and Sycuan Peak in San Diego County. Many Department lands acquired for other wildlife species also contain populations of rare plants or special natural communities. Funding for acquisitions comes from a variety of sources, including bond acts such as 1988's Proposition 70 and the recently passed Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000, NCCP funding for acquisitions, CVPIA funding, and grant programs such as the Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation (EEM) Program and Transportation Enhancement Activities (TEA).

Management and Monitoring 

Once habitat is legally protected, management of the habitat is usually essential. Habitat management might entail removing invasive nonnative plants or herbivores from rare plant habitat, restoring drainage patterns to an area, rerouting trails, changing the timing of livestock grazing, conducting prescribed burns, or carrying out other actions that benefit native plant populations. Monitoring rare plant populations over time to assess the effects of management actions and to detect potential threats is a critical component of any management program. Efforts that promote collaboration and integrate land conservation actions with scientifically based stewardship and public outreach programs are often the most successful.

The Department is carrying out active management and monitoring programs throughout the State. Examples include a project to assess methods of controlling invading plants in western lily (Lilium occidentale) habitat in Humboldt County, implementing management prescriptions to restore vernal pool habitat for rare plants on Department lands on the Santa Rosa Plain in Sonoma County, and working with BLM and CNPS to monitor populations of rare plants at Algodones Dunes in Imperial County.


For many species and habitats, scientific information needed for sound management is lacking. Throughout California, academic researchers at universities, museums, botanical gardens, and private foundations work with the Department under Memoranda of Understanding to answer questions which may be important to the conservation of listed plant populations. Research may focus on population genetics, reproductive strategies of plants, long?term population trends, habitat characterization, or other topics which may help guide conservation and management decisions.

Examples of research include analyzing the effects of grazing on Tehama County vernal pools; experimentally manipulating grassland habitat for Santa Cruz tarplant (Holocarpha macradenia) to control weedy grasses; restoring dune habitat for Menzies's wallflower (Erysimum menziesii), Howell's spineflower (Chorizanthe howellii), and western snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus); and characterizing habitat and initiating recovery actions for Ventura marsh milk-vetch (Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus).


Although the DFG has not written formal recovery plans for listed plants, it participates with USFWS in the federal recovery planning process. In addition, DFG holds recovery workshops for listed plants involving academic researchers, local landowners and experts, government agencies, conservation groups, and others to identify actions that will be needed to bring a species to recovery. An example of an ongoing recovery program involves two plant species that occur on the central coast, marsh sandwort (Arenaria paludicola) and Gambel's watercress (Rorippa gambelii). Most of the freshwater wetland habitat for these species has been lost, and groundwater pumping, wetland filling, and encroachment of nonnative plants continue to pose threats. As a result of recovery planning involving DFG, USFWS, academic experts, landowners, CNPS, and others, previously unknown populations of these species have been located. In addition, researchers are investigating the life history, habitat characteristics, and genetics of these species. Future work will concentrate on finding suitable habitat in California to establish additional populations.

Cooperative Conservation Planning 

Cooperative conservation planning for species and habitats via a landscape level approach is viewed by many as the most biologically sound and effective approach. The goal of these planning efforts is to protect areas large enough to include the diversity of habitats and species and the ecological processes they need to survive. Because many rare plants have very narrow distributions, these conservation efforts must be carefully planned to include their habitat in the preserve areas.

Using sound science, landscape level conservation planning helps to recover endangered species and preclude more common species from declining to the point of endangerment. This collaborative approach also provides local agencies with a powerful tool for land use planning in the face of California's continuing population growth. Many cooperative conservation plans are undertaken in coordination with the federal government through Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) or under the state's Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) Program (described above). These planning efforts bring together government agencies, conservation organizations, businesses, landowners, and local interests to protect both the species and their habitats.

DFG is involved in cooperative conservation planning efforts for plants throughout California, including the western Mojave Desert, western Riverside County, the Coachella Valley, San Diego, Orange, Kern, Placer, and Sacramento counties, and many others.

Individual Project Review 

DFG regional biologists and botanists work with project proponents, local governments, and other agencies to see that land use changes from individual projects consider rare plant populations and their habitats and to design appropriate mitigation for unavoidable impacts. CEQA provides protection not only for state-listed species, but also for any species that can be shown to meet the criteria for state listing (CEQA Guidelines Section 15380). A development project that has a potential to reduce the number or restrict the range of an endangered, rare, or threatened species, or that threatens to eliminate a plant community, requires the lead agency to make a mandatory finding of significance and require that an EIR be prepared (CEQA Guidelines Section 15065). The DFG recognizes that Lists 1A, 1B, and 2 of the CNPS Inventory consist of plants that may qualify for listing, and the Department recommends they be addressed in CEQA projects. However, a plant need not be in this Inventory to be considered a rare, threatened, or endangered species under CEQA. In addition, the DFG recommends, and local governments may require, protection of plants which are regionally significant, such as locally rare species, disjunct populations of more common plants, or plants on the CNPS Lists 3 and 4.

To guide documentation of potential impacts to plants, the DFG has adopted Guidelines for Assessing the Effects of Proposed Projects on Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Plants and Plant Communities, adapted from those prepared by CNPS (included in this volume). These guidelines are given out to all project proponents, lead agencies and the interested public when they request DFG participation or information.

Over the years we have learned that small, piecemeal mitigation efforts, which in the past typically involved the transplantation of endangered plant populations, have a low success rate. For full mitigation of project impacts, the Department now favors the protection of intact habitat and restoration of degraded habitat, rather than relying on transplantation of plant populations.


Under State law, plant species may be formally designated rare, threatened, or endangered by the California Fish and Game Commission, a five-member board appointed by the Governor to establish the policies by which the DFG operates. State listing is a way of formally recognizing the plight of a species and the need to protect its habitat. Once a species is officially listed, it may have a greater chance of benefiting from funding, and listed plants are generally given greater attention during the land use planning process by local governments, public agencies, and landowners than are plants that have not been listed. State-listed threatened and endangered species and designated candidates are protected from removal except by permit or agreement from the DFG.

The CESA establishes a process by which individuals, organizations, or the DFG can submit petitions to the Fish and Game Commission requesting that a species, subspecies, or variety of plant or animal be added to, deleted from, or changed in status on the State lists of rare, threatened, or endangered species. The factors that contribute to determining the need to list a species include the present or threatened modification or destruction of habitat, competition, predation, disease, overexploitation by collectors, or other natural occurrences or human?related activities. Currently California has designated 216 plant species as rare, threatened, or endangered, and additional species continue to be proposed for State listing. The list of rare, threatened, and endangered plants can be found on the DFG's web site at It should be noted that the process to list species often takes in excess of a year to complete. The Department encourages interested parties to engage in cooperative efforts to protect plants where possible during this time rather than waiting for a listing to take effect before taking necessary action.

Public Support 

Fundamental to California's success in conserving native plants and their habitats is the support and involvement of its citizens and organizations such as the California Native Plant Society. Citizen involvement is key to the strength of the laws protecting native plants, the ability of government agencies to implement and enforce the laws, and most importantly, the participation essential to carry out needed conservation actions and find solutions to complex problems.

The DFG works to increase public awareness and support for native plant conservation in a variety of ways. Public outreach activities include developing interpretive materials at Wildlife Areas and Ecological Reserves, publishing the monthly magazine Outdoor California, coordinating Project Wild (a program to train public school teachers), and leading the Endangered Species Campaign to encourage contributions to the Endangered Species Tax Check-Off Fund.

In 1997, the DFG, in collaboration with CNPS and the California Academy of Sciences, produced California's Wild Gardens, A Living Legacy. This 236 page book, with more than 500 color photographs, showcases the diversity of California's native plants in their natural settings, and highlights some of the best and most floristically important sites in the state. More than 100 of California's botanists and ecologists from many different professional arenas contributed to this book. California's Wild Gardens views California as a series of ecological regions, each housing a specialized flora. Within these regions smaller localized areas, or "hot spots" are featured. This book is available through CNPS and at bookstores.

Sandra Morey is Coordinator of the Species Conservation and Recovery Program, California Department of Fish and Game, 1416 Ninth St., Sacramento, CA 95814. Diane Ikeda is Plant Ecologist in the Species Conservation and Recovery Program, California Department of Fish and Game, 1416 Ninth St., Sacramento, CA 95814

Additional Information

Plants Listed or Candidates under State Law

Department of Fish and Game - web site

Wildlife and Habitat Data Analysis Branch


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