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California looks at protections for new plant species

The endangered wildflower faces threats from cyclists, fire breaks and invasive species.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A new species of plant found in an open-space park in the San Francisco Bay Area will be considered for additional protection by the California government.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has initiated a status review for the Lime Ridge eriastrum, common name Lime Ridge woollystar, following a petition to the Fish and Game Commission in 2021. Christopher McCarron asked the state to protect the annual wildflower, which has only been found where it was discovered in 2008, in Lime Ridge Open Space near Mount Diablo State Park in the East Bay Area.

Amateur botanist David Gowen found the two previously unidentified plants, now named the Lime Ridge navarretia and the Lime Ridge woollystar, blooming on protected land near the cities of Walnut Creek and Concord. The woollystar is now a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act.

A petition filed to the Fish and Game commission by Christopher McCarron shows on a map where plants under the Lime Ridge Woollystar classification are located in Lime Ridge Open Space in the East Bay Area. (Christopher McCarron /Courthouse News)

McCarron said the government should further protect the plant within Lime Ridge Open Space because its suitable habitat is fragmented and isolated, with no adjacent areas available for expansion. 

“By far the most imminent threat to all colonies is from open space recreation activities, mainly hiking and mountain biking," McCarron said in his petition, adding mountain bikers often ignore signage about where trails are and some illegal bike trails and jumps are located near woollystar colonies.

PG&E maintenance work and brush clearance has affected the plant species in the past, as did the July 2018 wildfire that burned within 30 feet of 56 plants. The plant is also affected by invasive species moving into barren areas, while planned fire breaks may destroy its habitat. 

“Invasive species, land use issues and natural disturbance regimes present a threat to all known occurrences of the species,” McCarron wrote, adding that surveys in the last decade counted 1,297 individual plants with an additional colony later found.

For these reasons, he asked the state to protect the current plant population. “Having a population size large enough to maintain genetic integrity is essential for the survival of the species and the number of individuals at this current time is likely not enough to do this," he wrote.

He suggested maintenance efforts such as defining what PG&E can do to perform maintenance on transmission towers and fuel breaks in the area, reducing invasive species in certain areas, excluding mountain bikes from Lime Ridge Open Space or closing off trails around the PG&E transmission tower during blooming and seed season.

As of March 4, harming or killing the plant is prohibited. However, some people can get authorization to conduct scientific or educational activities with the plant through permits or memorandums of understanding. 

State Fish and Wildlife deputy director Jordan Traverso said the status review process will involve the agency's scientists reviewing the region, plant population and all information about the species. The agency will accept submitted data or comments about the plant species through August 23.

"With the status review that has commenced based on the petition to the commission, the notification that was sent out today is really a call for any and all scientific information about the species," Traverso said. She said with that data, Fish and Wildlife has a year to make a recommendation as to whether listing the species as protected is warranted, and the commission will hold a public hearing within the following year.

"Lime Ridge is a very unique place and so we're glad that Fish and Wildlife is reviewing the petition and moving forward," said California Native Plant Society East Bay chapter conservation chair Jim Hanson. "They (woollystar plants) deserve the protection to keep them with us in the future."

“It is exciting to know that the Lime Ridge eriastrum has moved one step closer to becoming officially protected by the state’s California Endangered Species Act," Dianne Lake, chair of CNPS's Unusual Plant Committee and temporary chair of the Rare Plant Committee, said. "It has been one of our chapter’s high-priority unusual plants since its discovery, and our CNPS volunteers have regularly monitored the two small sites on Lime Ridge where it occurs. This plant is not known from anywhere else in the state, so it is highly important to protect and ensure its continued existence on Lime Ridge.”

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