U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Sacramento Fish & Wildlife OfficeServing the people, conserving the fish, wildlife, and plants of California

A Unit Of The Pacific Southwest Region

Habitat Conservation Plans: Good for Wildlife – Good for People

March 21, 2014

Coyote Ridge, home of the endangered Bay checkerspot butterfly, is being preserved thanks to the Santa Clara Valley HCP. - Photo Credit: USFWS

The Endangered Species Act (Act) is a hallmark of the United States’ efforts to conserve its diversity of fish, wildlife and plants. Since its passage in 1973, the Act has been amended several times in response to emerging issues. Section 10 of the Act was amended in late 1982 to provide a mechanism for non-federal landowners to legally disturb or harm (referred to as “take”) federally listed threatened or endangered species incidental to lawful activities, if the anticipated impacts were counterbalanced by other actions that would benefit the species. Measures to mitigate the project impacts would be outlined in a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). The first HCP, San Bruno Mountain in northern California, was permitted in March 1983.

Before HCPs, most landowners had few options for using their land if a proposed use would result in harm or killing of a federally protected species. Support from landowners is essential to the conservation of rare wildlife because the largest proportion of species occur on private lands. Providing a process by which a landowner could derive economic benefit from their land and be in compliance with federal law made it possible to resolve conflicts between endangered species protection and economic development. In California, HCPs are used to address multiple species and habitats across large swaths of land to balance economic growth and wildlife conservation in a cooperative, efficient, and effective manner. HCPs that address many species and habitats within a large geographic area are referred to as regional HCPs.

Benefits of Regional HCPs for Wildlife
Regional HCPs identify key habitats for fish, wildlife, and plants at a large enough scale to provide for sustainable populations; provide wildlife corridors to allow for genetic exchange and population movement; and minimize effects associated with habitat areas that are hemmed in by development or other disruptive activities. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists work with HCP applicants – typically private landowners and local governments – to identify areas most appropriate for future development activities and areas that have the highest, most important values to wildlife. This process to strategically protect areas for wildlife conservation is extremely important for long term preservation of the species.

Conservation of Sedco Hills in Riverside County provides high quality habitat for native species. - Photo Credit: USFWS

Areas set aside as part of a regional HCP’s reserve system are then managed to retain their value for wildlife over time. Management of these reserve lands generally includes: control of nonnative, invasive plant species; trash removal; fire management; and monitoring of fish, wildlife, and plant populations.

The value of these reserve lands for species and habitat connectivity can be enhanced by the purchase of additional lands (above mitigation requirements) funded through section 6 of the Act. Section 6 funds are provided to states and territories to help develop HCPs, and to conserve lands for federally listed species. There is a minimum non-federal match of 25 percent for the estimated program costs of approved projects. These funds are administered under three grant programs: HCP Planning Assistance, HCP Land Acquisition and Recovery Land Acquisition. Funding through section 6 of the Act furthers the conservation goals of regional HCPs. These funds are used to carry out important research to help adaptively manage reserve lands; conduct baseline surveys; enhance knowledge of species; and facilitate the purchase of conservation land from willing sellers. In California, approximately $8.8 million in HCP Land Acquisition funding was awarded to regional HCPs in 2013. These funds will be used to purchase more than 3,000 acres of habitats supporting a wide range of species including Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, coastal California gnatcatcher, and arroyo toad. Lands acquired from willing sellers using section 6 funds do not fulfill the mitigation obligations of HCP permit holders. Rather, the lands acquired with the aid of section 6 money add to the overall conservation benefit of an HCP.

Spreading navarretia, one of 26 federally listed species covered under the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. Photo Credit: S.Brown/USFWS

Regional HCPs and Benefits to People
California has a population of 38 million people and a growing demand for critical infrastructure, including roads and bridges, along with housing and business development. Regional HCPs require the Service to conduct an analysis of the overall effects of all the proposed activities that are expected to occur under the HCP and to determine if they will result in jeopardy to any of the covered species or adversely modify any designated critical habitat. The comprehensive analysis that is done in conjunction with a regional HCP can reduce future delays and costs related to consultations for projects that are proposed within an HCP area, if those projects were already addressed in the HCP analysis.

For example, the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) is part of a comprehensive planning effort to address species conservation, land use, and transportation. This rapidly growing area of California is expected to increase in population from 1.5 to 3 million by 2020. The integration of thoughtful conservation planning with urban development and transportation is providing a more efficient, streamlined, cost effective way of planning for the future. Approximately $2.2 billion has been spent on 25 large transportation projects within the Western Riverside County MSHCP. Through the streamlined permitting process, it is estimated that federal and state agencies and non-federal landowners saved between $126 and $278 million on these important infrastructure projects (Economic & Planning Systems, Inc. 2014).

The endangered Bay checkerspot Butterfly. Photo Credit:J.Cleckler/USFWS

Landscape-scale HCPs in California vary in permit duration from 25-75 years! Longer-term permits can be useful when conservation benefits take many years to be realized. The Service works with HCP participants to ensure that conservation is being implemented concurrently with any development activities. Annual reports are submitted to the Service outlining all of an HCP’s conservation accomplishments and the types and amount of impacts that occurred within the plan area such as development projects and expanded agricultural activities. These reports are used to demonstrate the HCP is on target to fulfill its conservation obligations within the permit timeframe.

Although the overarching purpose of reserves established through regional HCPs is wildlife conservation, many preserve areas can also provide new opportunities for local communities to enjoy conservation-compatible recreation such as hiking, birdwatching, and environmental education.

Regional HCPs can address a diverse array of activities. In California, there are regional HCPs primarily focused on housing development, but other large-scale HCPs have covered water delivery, and operation and maintenance of electrical transmission lines. Currently, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is being developed for the desert regions and adjacent lands of seven California counties – Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego. This 22.5 million-acre planning area will help provide effective protection and conservation of desert ecosystems while allowing for appropriate development of utility-scale renewable energy development, including: solar, geothermal, wind, and energy transmission projects.

Landscape level HCPs preserve important wildlife corridors that benefit many native species, including mule deer. Photo Credit: USFWS

California’s State Conservation Planning
Regional conservation planning in California has benefitted from the State’s unique complimentary habitat conservation law, the Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP) Act. Throughout the 1980s, the pace of urban development in southern California was quickly destroying coastal sage scrub habitat in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Loss and fragmentation of sage scrub habitat resulted in declines in populations of coastal California gnatcatcher, cactus wren, orange-throated whiptail lizard and a host of other sage scrub-dependent species.

Recognizing the loss of coastal sage scrub habitat was putting many native species of wildlife and plants at risk, the State of California passed the NCCP Act of 1992. This legislation offered a voluntary framework by which state, local and private entities could develop a comprehensive plan to balance economic growth with conservation of coastal sage scrub habitat. In 1993, the coastal California gnatcatcher was listed under the Act as a threatened species. The Service included a special rule associated with the gnatcatcher that allowed for “take” of the bird if developers participated in the NCCP program. The first plan to address both the federally listed gnatcatcher and its coastal sage scrub habitat was the Orange County Central-Coastal plan. This regional plan includes seven participating jurisdictions and addresses development activities on 208,000 acres, with more than 37,000 acres set aside for wildlife conservation. In addition to providing for conservation of coastal sage scrub habitat and the coastal California gnatcatcher, the Central-Coastal plan outlines conservation measures for 37 additional species of plants and wildlife and a variety of habitats including riparian and grassland.

San Diego County completed its first regional HCP/NCCP, the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP), in 1997. The MSCP covers about 508,000 acres in the southwestern part of the County and includes 9 participating jurisdictions. The goal of the MSCP is to provide for 171,900 acres of preserve lands for 85 targeted plant and animal species, including the coastal California gnatcatcher and its coastal sage scrub habitat. Habitats addressed by the plan range from riparian to grassland to chaparral.

In the 18 years since the Orange County Central-Coastal HCP/NCCP was completed, numerous regional HCPs have been approved or are in development throughout California. The NCCP program has also expanded to address a broad range of important natural habitats throughout the state.

In northern California, the East Contra Costa HCP/NCCP covers 175,000 acres. This plan will authorize between 8,670 and 11,853 acres of development while establishing a preserve system totaling between 23,800 to 30,300 acres that will be managed for the benefit of 28 covered species and the natural communities upon which those species, and hundreds of others, depend.

In total, more than 3.7 million acres in California have been covered by regional HCPs, resulting in more than 1.5 million acres of conserved and managed habitats. An additional 29 million acres are in the process of being addressed through regional HCP/NCCPs.

Since they were authorized in the early 1980s, HCPs have been providing a pathway forward to balance wildlife conservation with development. Today, it is more important than ever to anticipate, prevent, and resolve controversies and conflicts associated with project-by-project permitting. Landscape-scale HCPs do this by addressing these issues regionally, collaboratively and over the long term. With the continued stresses on our fish and wildlife resources from wildfires, climate change, and urban development, landscape-scale HCPs provide the best opportunity to provide habitat in assemblages that will be more resilient to these impacts.

By Jane Hendron Carlsbad Fish & Wildlife Office

Last updated: November 9, 2017