Monthly Archives: June 2013

Use of Ecoregions, Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUCs), and Marine Protection Study Regions as the Planning Units for the State Wildlife Action Plan Update

As mentioned in the last newsletter, California has the most biological diversity of any state in the nation. This diversity is supported by the many unique habitats which evolved from the combination of our geology, topography and climate. Because of our diversity, characterizing the state becomes difficult, especially when describing natural resources. Consequently, State and federal wildlife and land-management agencies have divided the state into practical management jurisdictions based roughly on the distribution of biological resources. For instance, the California Biodiversity Council designated regions based on agency management jurisdictions combined with ecological features of the landscape. For the SWAP-2005, the plan development team took a similar approach to that of the Biodiversity Council, and used their boundaries with some minor adjustments, to develop regional conservation recommendations.

For the SWAP-2015 update, three separate sets of geographic units (or scales) will be used to identify priority conservation targets (species, habitats, and ecosystems that are the focus of conservation strategies), assess threats to those targets, and develop strategies to conserve those targets. USDA ecoregions (see Figure 1) will be used as the biogeographic units to assess threats and develop strategies for the terrestrial targets of the SWAP. The National Hydrography Dataset (NHD), at the HUC 4 scale (Figure 2), will be used for aquatic targets. CDFW’s Marine Life Protection Act study regions will be used for the marine targets (Figure 3).

California EcoregionsFigure 1: Ecoregions of California (USDA 1994)

Hydrolic Units MapFigure 2. Hydrologic Units overlaid on Ecoregion boundaries (USGS)

Marine Protection AreasFigure 3. Marine Protection Study Regions

The SWAP 2015 Update process will also need to address cross-boundary issues that may not be captured within the individual ecoregion or watershed planning unit or within the state borders. In addition, there may be other issues that require coordination among teams to ensure similar outputs. Examples include addressing anadromy; addressing single species targets that use multiple habitat types or different habitat types during different life-stages either within or across ecoregions/HUCs; and addressing habitat or species targets that may shift across ecoregions/HUCs, or state borders as a result of climate change. The ecoregion/HUC teams will coordinate across boundaries as they develop the steps in the process (e.g. assess threats, develop strategies).


ECOREGION SPOTLIGHT: Southern California Coast

By Karen Miner

The Southern California Coast ecoregion includes the coastal plain and hill portions of the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego, as well as the Channel Islands. The area is characterized by a Mediterranean-like climate – mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers with brief periods of drought.  Habitats in this region include coastal sage scrub, chaparral, grasslands, riparian woodland, beach sand dune, coastal bluff scrub and salt marsh.

South Coast Ecoregion MapDue to the desirable climate and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, humans have been attracted to this region for centuries. Today, several of the largest population centers of California occur here including the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area and Greater San Diego. Roughly 30% of the state’s population resides in this area that comprises less that 5% of California’s land.

This region is renowned for its outstanding biodiversity. At the same time, it is considered one the world’s significant biodiversity hotspots. A biodiversity hotspot is a biogeographic region with a significant number of species that are under threat from human activity. There are more than 300 species in the Southern California Coast ecoregion that are thought to be potentially threatened with extinction. Examples include the California gnatcatcher, least Bell’s vireo, San Diego cactus wren, California least tern, Pacific pocket mouse, light-footed clapper rail, and all the subspecies of island fox.

One of the most important habitats in the South Coast Ecoregion is riparian woodland. This habitat supports nearly two hundred native species including ringtail cat, white-tailed kite, cooper’s hawk, garter snakes, and many kinds of migratory songbirds. Riparian woodlands occur along running water such as rivers and streams – and provide essential habitat critical for these species including nesting and foraging sites, corridors for species movement, and shade (thermal refugia) to cool water for fish and wildlife. They also provide shade for people engaged in fishing, picnicking, trail use, and willows for use in furniture and baskets.

riparian woodland

Riparian Woodland. Photo credit: Jason Price

In the absence of past long-range regional planning that balanced ecological values with human needs, riparian woodlands in southern California were severely disturbed by development, agriculture, and livestock ranching. The conflicts between urban development and conservation of species in this region led to the enactment of the Natural Communities Conservation Planning (NCCP) Act of 1991(Fish and Game Code 2800-2835)  – which takes an ecosystem approach to the protection of plants, animals, and their habitats while allowing compatible development and economic activity.

San Diego and Orange counties have adopted NCCP processes to develop and implement their regional conservation plans and restore essential ecological processes while accommodating continued economic growth. Interconnected reserve systems are being assembled that will enable the region’s diverse flora and fauna to adapt and persist long into the future, even in the face of a changing climate. The overall effect is the creation of a large, connected reserve system that addresses the regional habitat needs for multiple species.

As part of the California SWAP update, teams of scientists are currently crafting strategies to help reduce the threats and stresses affecting riparian habitat while enhancing its ability to renew itself and provide a variety of structure and food sources that different species need. For example, bewick’s wrens require cavities in mature trees to place their nest and nearby understory growth harboring insects they need to feed themselves and their young. Still very preliminary in its development, the strategy will include education and outreach as one component to help inform individuals and local communities about the value of riparian habitats and promote water conservation. The threat of invasive species to the system and how to avoid their spread will also be highlighted in the strategy, as well as how to allow or mimic natural flooding regimes in some areas in order to rejuvenate the habitat.

With public support, the CDFW’s goal is to maintain the current extent and distribution of riparian habitats in southern California and to look for opportunities to protect and restore currently degraded riparian areas.

Planning Approach – Open Standards

In order to achieve conservation goals, it is important to determine the extent to which actions are working – and be able to diagnose why some succeed while others do not. The SWAP 2015 Update will use an adaptive management approach that will allow CDFW to systematically plan their conservation strategies, and then determine if their strategies are on track and what adjustments need to be made to achieve their goals.

The intention of developing conservation strategies is to identify and implement conservation actions directed at specific threats and stressers that will benefit the greatest number of Species with the Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) within an ecoregion, watershed or marine study area. More information on SGCN can be found in the SGCN article in this newsletter.

The planning approach selected by CDFW is the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation developed by the Conservation Measure Partnership. The Open Standards is a widely accepted conservation planning framework that brings together common concepts, approaches, and terminology in conservation project design, management, and monitoring in order to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation.

The five steps that comprise the project management cycle are: 1) Conceptualizing the project vision and context; 2) Planning actions and planning monitoring; 3) Implementing actions and implementing monitoring; 4) Analyzing data, using the results, and adapting the project; and 5) Capturing and sharing learning.

SWAP Cycle

SWAP Cycle

This article will explore the process to Conceptualize the project vision and context (step 1 of the Open Standards project management cycle). Future articles will provide additional details of steps 2 – 5.

First, the scope of the Update is the State of California; and the project team is composed of selected CDFW staff. The vision for the 2015 Update is:

Through the California State Wildlife Action Plan, the Department of Fish and Wildlife seeks to conserve the resources in the nation’s most biologically diverse state. We seek to create a flexible but scientific process to respond to changing challenges, including population growth, the need for renewable energy, and global climate change. The Department seeks to make best use of limited resources while developing lasting partnerships and increasing public participation in the conservation and management of California’s valued natural resources.

Foothills Ecoregion

The next step is to define the geographic planning areas for the Update. CDFW started with USDA’s 19 ecological sections of California and added 16 watersheds and 5 Marine Study Areas (collectively called ecoregions), plus the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecoregion.  An example of an ecoregion is the Sierra Nevada Foothill Ecoregion. Within each ecoregion, CDFW identified the vegetative communities that occur there using the Nation Vegetation Classification. This classification was adapted for California and described in the Manual of California Vegetation ( The manual contains a hierarchy of vegetative associations.

foothill landscape

Oak Woodland. Photo Credit: CalPhotos. 2012. Regents of the University of California, Berkeley. Accessed on June 17, 2013

CDFW selected a level in the hierarchy that most closely matches the scale most commonly used for describing habitats. This was the “macrogroup level.” Macrogroups are specific vegetative assemblages that make up habitats, or ecological systems that represent and encompass the full suite of biodiversity within the planning area. Species can be grouped into one habitat if they occur on the same landscape, require similar ecological processes, have similar viability, and have similar threats. An example of a macrogroup in the Sierra Nevada Foothill Ecoregion is California Forest and Woodland – which is a fancy, albeit scientific way of saying “Oak Woodland.”

Macrogroups are the basic unit for development and selection of conservation actions. The assumption is that if the habitat and ecosystem is protected and managed, species that live there will be conserved. While an ecoregion has multiple macrogroups, CDFW is focusing on 1 – 3 priority macrogroups in each ecoregion to develop conservation strategies for the Update.

To develop a conservation strategy, it is important to first identify the environmental stresses affecting the habitat and ecosystems. Stresses are degraded ecological conditions found in the macrogroup. Stresses might include loss of habitat, altered fire regime, and altered landscape connectivity, to name a few. Identifying the stresses provides greater ecological understanding of how a threat impacts the habitat – and helps in the analysis to determine the degree to which the effects of a threat might be mitigated.

The next step is to identify the direct threats that influence a habitat. Direct threats are primarily human activities that immediately affect a target. Some common examples include urban development, fire management practices, invasive species, dams and dam management including water diversions, and transportation corridors.

Understanding the how stresses interact with threats to impact a species is the basis for developing actions to ameliorate the impact. For example, native trout are dependent on specific habitat conditions in a stream. Trout could be impacted by altered river flow due to reduced snowpack as a result of climate change, and further impacted by dam operations and low dissolved oxygen due to invasive species. Conservation strategies can be developed to reduce the impacts and restore the habitat.

Threats-DiagramOnce stresses, threats and a habitat’s vulnerability to climate change are identified, a conceptual model is developed that identifies linkages and interactions within a habitat or macrogroup. A very simple conceptual model is shown to the left. The conceptual model presents a picture of the situation within an ecoregion.

Conceptual models also allow scientists to develop potential conservation strategies in Step 2 of the Open Standards process. Strategies are a group of actions with a common focus that work together to reduce threats, capitalize on opportunities, or restore natural systems.

The tremendous amount of information being developed by the ecoregion teams is being input into the Miradi Adaptive Management Software Program (Miradi). Miradi walks staff through the conceptualization and planning steps (Steps 1 and 2) in the adaptive management cycle. The information will then be used to compare information across the state and region, and then aggregate and report it in various forms to interested audiences and users.

What are California’s “Species of Greatest Conservation Need”?

Big Horn Sheep

Big Horn Sheep/Photo credit USFWS

By Steve Schoening

Every year Congress sets aside funding to assist states in promoting the health and recovery of declining wildlife populations. This money is delivered through the State Wildlife Grants (SWG) Program administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  In order to be eligible to apply for this money, each state must have an approved State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) that focuses on the species most in need of conservation. These species are identified in a list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) – every state has one. The list includes those species that are deemed most rare, imperiled and in need of conservation actions.  Even though the SWG funding program is limited to only animals (fish and wildlife), and their habitats within the state, California’s flora will be added to the SGCN list in order to allow the SWAP to be more comprehensive in its scope than currently required.

Palo Verde Blue Butterfly

Palo Verde Blue Butterfly/Photo credit USFWS

While it could be argued that most, if not all, biota in the state have an identifiable “conservation need,” for the list to be useful as a prioritization tool, only those species with the greatest need are placed on the list. In 2005 the original California SWAP used the existing California Fish and Game Sensitive Animals List as the SGCN list.  This was a comprehensive and convenient decision, but resulted in a long list, with more than 700 species. This many species didn’t allow for real priorities for conservation to be set.

For the 2015 SWAP revision, the technical team working on the plan determined it would be beneficial to create a new shorter SGCN list. The new SGCN list follows a rigorous scientific process to determine the lower end of “need” by incorporating the high-intensity technical reviews being done for the major vertebrate classifications in California known as Species of Special Concern (SSC) reports. These assessments are described in the CA Bird Species of Special Concern foreword as a “synergistic collaboration among California’s top field and museum ornithologists, wildlife biologists and conservationists” and produce the “definitive treatment of the status of declining bird populations in California.”

Baby Desert Tortoise

Baby Desert Tortoise/Photo credit USFWS

By 2015, the species of special concern reports will be done for birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals ( ). Species that are already state or federally listed as threatened or endangered are not included in the SSCs but will be included on the SGCN list by definition. Species that are candidates for listing under either the State or Federal Endangered Species Acts will also be included in the SGCN list. For invertebrates, the existing species on the special animal list were ranked for threat and only the highest rank will be included. Lastly, new in the 2015 SWAP, a set of highest conservation need plant species will be included following consultation with the CA Native Plant Society-led, California Rare Plant Forum – a multiagency/stakeholder expert group.

To see the current DRAFT Species of Greatest Conservation Need list go to: