Rare and Endangered

Questions and Answers with Frank Landis, CNPS-SD Conservation Chair & Fred Roberts, CNPS-SD Rare Plant Botanist

How did you take an interest in rare and endangered California plant species?

FRANK: That’s a hard question, because I’ve been an environmentalist for a long time. For me, it has become a philosophical issue. I follow James Carse’s notion in Finite and Infinite Games.  We all know what finite games are, because we play them, they end, and you find out who won.  Indeed, you can only determine who won by ending the game.  An infinite game never ends, so you have to play it for different reasons. Carse believes there is only one infinite game, and that the reason to play the infinite game of life is to keep the game going with as many players as possible.  

That’s the game I play. Unlike Carse, I believe that most of the players in the infinite game of life on Earth aren’t human, but that we should work to keep them in the game. That’s why I work to protect rare and endangered plant species, as well as common and uncommon ones.

...I believe that most of the players in the infinite game of life on Earth aren’t human, but that we should work to keep them in the game.
— Frank

FRED: That was a while back. I believe I first took a strong interest in rare, endangered, and sensitive plants in the mid 1980s while working in the herbarium at the Museum of Systematic Biology at UC, Irvine, mostly in association with my flora of Orange County project. Roxanne Bittman, working with the Nature Conservancy contacted me about conducting a status review of Laguna Beach Dudleya (Dudleya stolonifera). TNC was pleased with the result and asked me to conduct status reviews of several other rare species. Roxanne Bittman later was hired by the California Department Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) within the California Natural Diversity Data Base program and we have remained in contact to this day. I was hooked on analysis and reviewing rare species. I was volunteered to be the rare plant chair of the Orange Co. CNPS chapter a couple years previously, but it was not until the dudleya review that I began to really take interest in the CNPS position. 

What is the process by which a plant gets listed?

FRANK: To oversimplify, you write a document called a listing petition that basically says, “THIS SPECIES NEEDS TO BE PROTECTED!” and send it to the wildlife agencies. In this case, the wildlife agencies would be the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for listing under the California Endangered Species Act, as our current Republican administration has hobbled the US Fish and Wildlife Service and made it currently impossible to get anything listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Anyone can write a listing petition, but to succeed, you have to have data to back up your petition.

To write a successful petition, you basically have to demonstrate three things: that the species is a good species, that it is threatened with extinction, and that listing it will help mitigate that threat. The good species part is that some groups of plants are messy “species complexes,” and it’s not clear whether a particular population is an independent species or just a weird population of a highly variable, common species. In the latter case, it’s hard to make a case for protection. Threats can range from loss of habitat to invasive pests to climate change, but they have to be documented.  Things like bristlecone pines aren’t terribly common, but they’re not listed because (until climate change bites down) they’re not under threat. Conversely, there may be ten thousand little beach annuals, but if they only occur in one five-acre beach, and a lot of people use that beach, then those little annuals are under threat. Finally, there’s the question of whether protection would make a difference. If a rare species is only found in a park, it’s already being protected. What more benefit would listing it provide, that it’s not already getting?

Answer those three questions, go through all the agency reviews, and you might just list a species.

FRED: From a citizen’s perspective, first, a species needs to be recognized as a serious conservation concern. Next, the known information about the plant needs to be gathered and organized, stressing the known distribution, ecology, and identifiable threats the plant faces. Typically, these plants already are on the CNPS Inventory IB or 2B list but not always. If they are in the Inventory, there is a usually information available for the plant at the California Natural Diversity Data Base, a good place to start (the chapter rare plant botanist often has this information available and can share it with the person looking into the species). The review needs to show there is a compelling argument that the plant is threatened or at risk of extinction to continue on to the listing process. This information will be useful for wildlife agency botanists whether a petition is pursued or not. It is very important in today’s political atmosphere to demonstrate that there is a imminent quantifiable risk to the species. The most common route to follow to get a plant listed is to file a petition with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (State) or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Federal). Once submitted, the petition puts the agency on a timeline to accept, decline, or defer (that last has been a favored option in recent years at the Federal level). For example, if the Fish and Wildlife accepts the petition, it will publish this in a 90-day finding and in the year or so after, a Proposed Rule. The rule is open for public comment. If the action continues, a Final rule for the listing is then published (or the Proposed rule is withdrawn). At the heart of any listing action, putting the background information together is the most critical element, especially now in the current environment where at least the Federal agencies are not encouraged to list new plants or animals. It can be a lot of work but a satisfying experience once the plant gains some official protection. Promotion and making the case for conservation to a wide audience during the process also helps.

Have you taken a special interest, stewardship or focused inventory of any particular species?

FRED: My interest in botany has always been regional and floristic and to a degree this is reflected in how I approach rare plants. When I first became interested in rare plants, my focus was the Orange County flora and thus my interest was in Orange County rare plants. I very quickly felt a certain degree of stewardship with these plants. I was very active in promoting the conservation of rare species, commenting frequently on EIRs, and was constantly watching for other species that should be added to the CNPS Inventory list. My specialty was providing the science and well documented threats. When I started work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, my regional area of focus became southern California but my specialty was the rare plants of Orange, western Riverside, and San Diego Counties. In part, because of this interest, I became the rare plant botanist for the Orange, Riverside/San Bernardino, and San Diego Co. chapters of CNPS. I am not as active these days as I once was, but I still try to play a part in rare plant conservation.   

FRANK: Yes. My general philosophy is to get involved wherever I live, so it’s less a matter of loving a particular group, and more trying to make a difference in whatever happens to be my community. Living in San Diego, I’m certainly not limiting myself to any one plant: I’m currently working on rare oaks, rare liverworts, vernal pool plants, beach plants, and commenting on environmental impact reports throughout the county.

How would you suggest becoming involved in the conservation of rare and endangered species?

FRANK: If you like learning to identify plants, learn to identify the local rarities, keep track of them, and speak up for them.  If you see something happening to them on public land (vandalism, poaching, disease, etc.) tell local park rangers or land managers, or tell us at CNPS.

If you’re less interested in learning to identify plants, you can also do a tremendous amount to help, by supporting environmental groups that work on rare plant protection. We’re always underfunded, and short of volunteers, so you can easily donate your money or your time to help us. You may also have valuable business or legal skills that will help us flourish while keeping field botanists from having to develop sidelines as legal experts, office managers, or entrepreneurs. 

FRED: Get familiar with the rare plants in the general area or county you live in. Start with one or two focus species, it is easy to get overwhelmed. One of the most effective ways to be involved is volunteer to help the Conservation Chair. These tireless people are always overwhelmed by new EIRs, or write your own comments. Again, familiarity with the rare plants themselves makes this task easier. Many are really cool. Don’t worry if you only know one or two species. Comment on them specifically. In conversations with family and friends, help them understand why it is important to converse species and habitat. We can do more for species by changing the mindset of the community then confronting the community. 

A number of rare and endangered listed plants are grown in the horticultural trade and a link to those available at this year’s Fall California Native Plant Sale is listed below. What do you see as the value of gardening with rare and endangered plant species?

FRED: Probably the most important part the horticultural trade can play is public education. By growing these plants people become familiar with them and develop a certain interest in their fate. They can show guests these plants (well, maybe not year round, many look pretty unappealing at the peak of the dry season), and get them thinking about their fate in the wild as well. It is important though that everyone walks away realizing that growing them in the garden is not a replacement for the plants growing in the wild.

Probably the most important part the horticultural trade can play is public education. By growing these plants people become familiar with them and develop a certain interest in their fate.
— Fred

FRANK: The most important thing to realize is that if an endangered species is in the nursery trade, the individual you plant is not covered by the endangered species act.  In most (all?) cases, the plants in the nursery trade were in cultivation before the species was listed. It is illegal to dig up a listed plant in the wild and to replant it in your yard (or your nursery, for that matter).

I’ll answer the question of value rhetorically: what’s the value of planting a ginkgo, or a Franklinia, or (dare I say it) marijuana? All of these are extinct in the wild. Then there are common native garden plants (such as Monterey pines, Monterey Cypresses, and Torrey pines) that are increasingly rare in the wild, but increasingly common in gardens and increasingly weedy outside their native range. Then there are plants (such as some Calochortus lilies, a few native grasses, and some native clovers) that were cultivated as food by the California Indians, but which are very uncommon both in the wild and in gardens now.  

In other words, rarity in the wild does not say much about how well a plant will grow in your garden. If you want to plant an endangered species to preserve it, go right ahead—but plant a couple, try to get them to breed with each other, and try to produce seedlings so that others can have them. If you want to plant something that happens to be rare, simply because you like it, that’s good too. Plant it, care for it, enjoy it. Every plant has its own story, and maybe you’ll find one to become a part of.



Frank Landis, a trained botanist, is a long-time member of CNPS. Currently he serves as Vice President and Conservation Chair of the San Diego chapter.  

Fred Roberts, author of “Illustrated Guide to the Oaks of the Southern Californian Floristic Province”  (1995) and co-author of “Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains”  (2013) has been working with native plants since high school. He was the assistant curator of the Herbarium at the Museum of Systematic Biology at U.C. Irvine for nine years, worked as a botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service primarily adding species to the endangered species list, and has spent the last 17 years as an independent botanical consultant, author, and artist. He is also the Chapter Rare Plant Botanist. His specialties include the flora of Orange County, oaks, lilies and their relatives, and rare plants of southern California.