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Rare Plants

Native plant species are threatened in Washington by our rapid population growth. To accommodate this growth and pressure for resources we are seeing rapid development and conversion of native ecosystems for other uses.

Protecting our natural heritage is critical and provides humanity with economic, ecologic and aesthetic values that are irreplaceable. Once a species is lost it cannot be recreated or replaced.

Golden Paintbrush at Ebey's Landing
Golden Paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) at Ebey's Landing photographed by Ted Thomas. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

Unfortunately, native plants do not receive the same protection in conservation law and policy. Under the Endangered Species Act imperiled animals are protected wherever they occur, but endangered plants are protected only on federal lands. “Extinction of a single plant species may result in the disappearance of up to 30 other species of plants”, according to the US Forest Service.

Protecting our natural heritage is critical and provides humanity with economic, ecologic and aesthetic values that are irreplaceable. Once a species is lost it cannot be recreated or replaced.

Washington’s rare plants are classified as threatened, sensitive or endangered and given a state status.

Endangered a native plant in danger of becoming extinct or extirpated in Washington within the foreseeable future, if factors contributing to its decline continue to operate. These are plants whose populations have been reduced to critically low levels or whose habitats have been degraded or depleted to a significant extent.

Threatened a native plant likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future in Washington, if factors contributing to its population decline or habitat degradation or loss continue.

Sensitive a native plant with small populations or localized distribution within the state, that is vulnerable or declining and could become Endangered or Threatened.

In Washington, many agencies, organizations, and programs are working to protect native plants.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources
The Department of Natural Resources manages more than 5 million acres of land in Washington on behalf of the citizens of the state. Forests, farms, natural areas, commercial properties and underwater lands are managed.

In 1972, the Washington State Legislature recognized that our natural heritage (i.e., the native species and ecosystems of the state) could be adversely affected by human activities. The Legislature also recognized that there were many benefits to retaining unaltered ecosystems and the plants and animals living within them. These benefits included, among others, having places for scientific research and education and providing habitat for rare and vanishing species.

The passage of the Natural Area Preserves Act in 1972 paved the way for the development of a statewide system of natural areas. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was authorized to establish and manage this system. DNR was directed to cooperate with federal state and local agencies, private organizations and individuals to ensure a truly staetwide system. Today, the statewide natural areas system consists of lands managed by numerous federal and state agencies and private conservation organizations.

In 1981, the Legislature amended the natural Areas Preserves Act to establish a Natural Heritage Program within DNR in addition to the Natural Areas Program. The Natural Heritage Program was developed to provide a scientific approach to the process of identifying candidate sites for the natural areas system.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) strives to maintain healthy, diverse and self-sustaining fish and wildlife populations and their habitats during a period of tremendous human population growth. We manage over 800,000 acres of land to provide habitat for fish and wildlife populations. We have limited authority to protect habitat on other lands, so we work collaboratively with land managers and landowners through numerous strategies including incentives, easements, agreements, acquisitions and technical assistance on best management practices and habitat restoration. In addition, WDFW has the authority to regulate activities within fish-bearing waters, and the importation and release of aquatic and terrestrial animal species and aquatic plants. We attempt to prevent introduction and control invasive species through cooperative education and enforcement programs with other agencies and organizations. Website links:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The biologists at US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) work cooperatively with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and nongovernmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy, to assess the status of Washington’s rare and threatened species. They provide on-the-ground actions that benefit these species through slowing the encroachment of trees, controlling invasive nonnative plants and re-establishing natural fire regimes.

If a plant species is rare and there are indications that its existence may be threatened, the FWS is responsible for proposing it for protection through “listing” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and then making a final determination whether the species is considered “threatened,” “endangered,” a "species of concern" or a “candidate” species. In the last five years, the ESA list of threatened or endangered plants in Washington State has increased considerably. And, while the ESA provides some emergency protection for these plants, it is mainly through the efforts of concerned individuals and organizations that the threats to these plants can be affected.

Plants currently listed in Western Washington include:

  • Marsh sandwort (Arenaria paludicola)
  • Golden Paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta)
  • Water howellia (Howellia aquatilis)
  • Kincaid’s lupine (Lupinus sulphureus ssp.kincaidii)
  • Nelson’s checker-mallow (Sidalcea nelsoniana)
  • Bradshaw’s desert parsley (Lomatium bradshawii)

The loss of habitat, through the encroachment of human population, forest species (trees) or invasive nonnative species is the number one threat to native plants. Air and water pollution affecting other parts of their ecosystems (such as pollinator insects, larger plants, and fungi), break down their support system. And, when certain plants are over-utilized by people harvesting them for sale, such as mushrooms or other fungi, their chances of survival are lessened.

When the survival of prairie plants, or grasslands as a whole, is threatened, other species, such as butterflies also falter. Currently, there are two butterfly species, the Mardon skipper and Taylor’s checkerspot, whose populations are diminishing because they are dependent on the composition (the complement of plants) and structure (their arrangement and size) of prairie habitat that is rapidly being lost.

After a plant is listed, the FWS and their partners develop a plan for the plant’s recovery that includes objectives and tasks that--if carried out--will work toward the plant’s recovery. Since these recovery plans are not policy or laws, that is, they are not legally binding, it is up to those involved to implement recovery efforts. FWS suggestions for helping recovery can include developing a site management plan, growing plants for reintroduction to other areas and protecting the remaining plants in their current habitat. FWS also administers several programs that can assist with funding recovery efforts. Recovery efforts have had remarkable affect at local native prairie areas, such as Mima Mounds, Glacial Heritage Preserve, Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, Fort Lewis, and Rocky Prairie Natural Area Preserve, to name a few.

In the words of FWS plant ecologist, Ted Thomas, “We’re not trying to save the whole world, just important pieces of it.”

Last year in Washington, the FWS provided $320,000 of funding toward the recovery of various animals and plant species’ recovery.

Washington State Noxious Weed Board
Non-native invasive species are estimated to be the second greatest threat to native plant species following direct habitat conversion.

The mission of the Washington State Weed Board is to serve as responsible stewards of Washington by protecting and preserving the land and resources from the degrading impact of noxious weeds. The State Weed Board serves as the state’s noxious weed coordination center. Through its actions and policy decisions, the Board coordinates and supports the activities of 48 county noxious weed control boards and weed districts of Washington.

Using Washington’s state noxious weed laws, the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, county noxious weed control boards and weed districts strive to eradicate new invasions and prevent the spread of already established noxious non-native plant species.

Washington State Parks and Recreation
The mission of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission is to "acquire, operate, enhance and protect a diverse system of recreational, cultural, historical and natural sites" in an effort to leave a valued legacy to future generations. State Parks’ resource stewardship program is charged with protecting the natural and cultural resources on more than 250,000 acres of land managed by the agency. The program’s team of resources specialists work with parks staff, park users and other interested parties to balance the complex – and often conflicting – demands of environmental protection, cultural/historic preservation and outdoor recreation.

To safeguard the public lands in its trust, the State Parks resource stewardship program administers a broad range of conservation activities, including the inventory and assessment of natural and cultural resources, management planning, applied research, stewardship training and special topics of statewide significance such as salmon recovery. Highlights of the program’s conservation activities follow.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture works to protect Washington’s native plants and ecosystems from invasive exotic species through the work of our Pest and Nursery Programs. The Pest Program works, in conjunction with our federal and state partners, to detect and eradicate invasive insect, plant disease and noxious weed invaders such as citrus longhorned beetle, Gypsy moth, Japanese beetle, sudden oak death, and Spartina which, if established, could devastate native plant ecosystems. The Nursery Inspection Program assists in enforcement of state quarantines on plant movement where pests could be introduced.

Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation is dedicated to conserving Washington’s native rare plants through both on-site and off-site (ex-situ) conservation methods such as rare plant monitoring, seed collection and storage, plant propagation and reintroduction of those plants into their native habitats, and education. We work with numerous Federal, state and county agencies including the Washington Natural Heritage Program, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, Washington State Parks and the King County Noxious Weed Control Program and we also work with local conservation organizations and the Woodland Park Zoo. Our organization is based on an incredible volunteer force. Rare Care volunteers have a wide range of interests and botanical knowledge and are involved in all aspects of our program.

The Nature Conservancy works throughout Washington and beyond to preserve our incredible diversity of native plant communities, the habitats they thrive in and the many organisms that depend on them. The Conservancy has protected nearly 400,000 acres in Washington and owns more than 43,000 acres across the state. And the Conservancy continues to work with public and private partners to determine where we can do the most good for our rich natural heritage. We monitor plant communities and rare species in protected areas, and restore places that are less healthy than they could be. This includes avoiding, monitoring and removing aggressive non-native plants that invade native habitat and crowd out local species. By supporting and participating in these efforts, the Conservancy's members, volunteers and partners are making a real difference today for future generations.

Updated: March 5, 2015
Copyright 2000-2018 Washington Native Plant Society. All rights reserved.

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