Everything about the federal government's newest endangered species recovery plan is big. It took nearly 10 years to complete. It addresses 33 types of plants and animals scattered across the length and breadth of California. It's 593 pages long.

But the biggest number associated with the plan is the price tag it places on actions necessary to eliminate threats to the species' continued survival: potentially more than $2 billion, a figure certain to raise eyebrows among even the staunchest supporters of habitat conservation, let alone those who believe the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) to be an excessively costly impediment to business.

“Clearly the costs are staggering,” Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the House Resources Committee, told the Sacramento Bee. “This will be yet another case study in the need to reform the Endangered Species Act.”

In a way, however, the draft recovery plan issued November 18 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is precisely the kind of flexible and comprehensive blueprint for conservation that critics of the ESA have been demanding for years. With its new approach, the plan could provide a test of whether those who have been calling for ESA “reform” really mean it, or whether demands for reform have been a smokescreen for more radical change.

It remains to be seen whether the recovery plan will mollify critics at either end of the political spectrum. The actions it describes, although intended to avoid the acrimony and conflict associated with typical ESA enforcement, have apparently not impressed the crowd of ESA reformers in Congress, and the voluntary nature of the recovery strategy will not be popular with the environmental community, which has often criticized similar habitat conservation plans for favoring landowners at the expense of plants and wildlife.

For more than a decade, critics of the ESA have lamented the way the law focuses attention on one species at a time, resulting in piecemeal conservation strategies that can subject landowners to a bewildering tangle of restrictions and ignore the needs of other species found in the same habitat. Critics have also carped about the law's encouragement of a top-down regulatory approach that focuses on punishing those who violate the ESA rather than rewarding those who voluntarily comply with it.

The draft plan appears to address both those claims. It focuses on not one but 20 federally listed species of plants and animals, as well as 13 “species of concern,” all of them associated with one of the rarest habitat types on the West Coast: vernal pools, small, ephemeral wetlands found in scattered foothill and valley locations from the Mexican border to southern Oregon. And the plan outlines a strategy for voluntary cooperation with private landowners, rather than simply detailing a set of restrictions on their actions.

None of the species are household names. The federally endangered plants covered by the plan are Loch Lomond button-celery, Contra Costa goldfields, Butte County meadowfoam, few-flowered navarretia, many-flowered navarretia, hairy Orcutt grass, Sacramento Orcutt grass, Lake County stonecrop, Greene's tuctoria, and Solano grass. The federally threatened plants are fleshy owl's clover, Hoover 's spurge, Colusa grass, San Joaquin Valley Orcutt grass, and slender Orcutt grass.

The three federally endangered animals are the Conservancy fairy shrimp, longhorn fairy shrimp and the vernal pool tadpole shrimp. The two federally threatened animals are vernal pool fairy shrimp and delta green ground beetle.

The 13 species of concern - meaning they are considered rare but not in danger of extinction - include 10 plants: Ferris' milk vetch, alkali milk vetch, persistent-fruited saltscale, spiny-sepaled button-celery, Boggs Lake hedge-hyssop, Ahart's dwarf rush, legenere, little mouse tail, pincushion navarretia, and bearded popcorn flower. The animals of concern are the mid-valley fairy shrimp, California linderiella, and western spadefoot toad.

All the plants and animals identified in the plan have extremely limited ranges, some of them being found in only a handful of locations.

Vernal pools are formed when winter rains collect in shallow, impermeable basins. The pools vanish during the dry season. For a brief time, they come riotously to life, supporting a profusion of wildflowers and small creatures that have managed to adapt to the wet-dry cycle. Fairy shrimp, for example, hatch, mature and breed in a matter of a few weeks, laying their eggs in the drying mud to await the onset of the next rainy season.

Vernal pools are thought to have originally occurred on 22 million acres in California and Oregon, but 75% of that habitat has been lost to urbanization and agricultural conversion. The relatively few vernal pools that remain often are threatened by poorly managed grazing, development plans, invasive weeds, or changes in the surrounding land use that can disrupt their delicate hydrology.

The draft recovery plan identifies “core areas” - those containing particularly important habitat, or one or more species - encompassing 1.5 million acres. Those areas are classed as Priority 1, 2 or 3, with most of the recovery strategies targeting the Priority 1 areas, which cover about 683,000 acres. Those are the areas with the greatest biodiversity or the highest concentration of vernal pools. Much of that acreage is in the Central Valley and Sierra foothills, but patches are found in many other areas, including San Diego, Lake, Napa, Mendocino, Riverside, Santa Barbara and Monterey counties.

The attention-grabbing recovery cost figures are based on a strategy of purchasing land to protect the core areas, which the service estimates would cost nearly $2.1 billion for the entire 1.5 million acres. For only the Priority 1 areas, the cost is estimated at $773 million.

In practice, however, it is unlikely the land will be purchased outright. The plan describes an entirely voluntary process by which landowners will enter into habitat conservation agreements with USFWS, or sell or dedicate conservation easements. Those strategies would drastically lower the cost of implementing the recovery plan.

The plan recommends that regional working groups be established, the membership to include local farmers, ranchers, developers and other community members. These groups would develop participation plans, coordinate education an outreach efforts, help develop economic incentives for conservation and recovery, and oversee the recovery process.

“Partnerships with private landowners are the key to successful recovery of vernal pool species,” said Steve Thompson, California-Oregon regional manager for USFWS. “This plan will help us direct federal funding to landowners for protection and restoration of these species, and enable landowners to protect their own interests with conservation agreements.”

After a 120-day public comment period, the service will begin work on a final version of the plan, expected to be completed late this year.

Fish and Wildlife Service: 916-414-6572
Draft vernal pool recovery plan: http://sacramento.fws.gov