California Central Valley grasslands

Content Cover Image

Yolo Basin grasssland protected area, California Central Valley. Source: C.Michael Hogan

The California Central Valley grasslands extends approximately 430 miles in central California, paralleling the Sierra Nevada Range to the east and the coastal mountain ranges to the west and stopping abruptly at the Tehachapi Range in the south; the Central Valley averages about seventy five miles in longitudinal extent. Two rivers flow from opposite ends of the valley, and form a major confluence at mid-valley to form the extensive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that discharges to the San Francisco Bay. This grassland ecoregion is an element of the Temperate Grasslands, Shrublands Savannas biome, and it has the World Wildlife Fund designation NA0801.

Desert grasslands occur in the southern end of the valley due to increasing aridity. The valley is ringed by oak woodlands and chaparral of the California interior chaparral and woodland ecoregion. Faunal biodiversity of the California Central Valley grasslands is relatively modest, especially given the habitat destruction wrought upon this region by man's well intentioned attempts to feed a hungry world; there are only 283 species of vertebrates recorded in this ecoregion.

Biological distinctiveness

caption WWF

The California Great Central Valley once supported a diverse array of perennial bunchgrass ecosystems including prairies, oak-grass savannas, desert grasslands, as well as a mosaic of riparian woodlands, freshwater marshes, and vernal pools. In its original state, it comprised one of the most diverse, productive, and distinctive grasslands in temperate North America. Faunal diversity is modest, with a total of 283 taxa having been recorded here. There are a number of special status organisms that are found in the California Central Valley grasslands, variously denoted as Near Threatened (NT), Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), or Critically Endangered (CR).

Perennial grasses that were adapted to cool-season growth dominated the habitats. The deep-rooted Purple Needle Grass (Nassella pulchra) was particularly important, although Nodding Needle Grass (Stipa cernua), Wild Ryes (Elymus spp.), Lassen County Bluegrass (Poa limosa), Aristida spp., Crested Hair-grass (Koeleria pyramidata), Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens,), and Coast Range Melicgrass (Melica imperfecta) occurred in varying proportions. Most grass growth occurred in the late spring after winter rains and the onset of warmer and sunnier days. Interspersed among the bunchgrasses were a rich array of annual and perennial grasses and forbs, the latter creating extraordinary flowering displays during certain years. Some extensive mass flowerings of the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Lupines (Lupinus spp.), and Exserted Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja exserta) still are found in several areas of the Central Valley, and are best known from Antelope Valley in the Tehachapi foothills.


Prehistoric grasslands here supported several herbivores including Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana), elk (including a valley subspecies, the Tule Elk, (Cervus elaphus nannodes), Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), California ground squirrels, gophers, mice, hare, rabbits, and kangaroo rats. Pronghorn are virtually extirpated in the region, and Elk are present only in greatly reduced numbers.  Several rodents are endemics or near-endemics to southern valley habitats including the Fresno Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys nitratoides exilis), Tipton Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys nitratoides nitratoides), San Joaquin Pocket Mouse (Perognathus inornatus), and Giant Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ingens). Predators originally included grizzly bear, gray wolf, coyote, mountain lion, ringtail, bobcat, and the San Joaquin Valley Kit Fox (Vulpes velox), another southern valley-foothill endemic species.


The valley and associated delta area once supported enormous populations of wintering waterfowl in extensive freshwater marshes. Riparian woodlands acted as important migratory pathways and breeding areas for many neotropical migratory birds. Three species of bird are largely endemic to the Central Valley, surrounding foothills, and portions of the southern coast ranges, namely, the Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), the Tri-colored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor EN), and Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii).


caption Vina Plains Nature Conservancy Preserve, CA, USA. Source: Todd Keeler-Wolf/California Dept. of Fish and Game The valley contains a number of reptile species including several endemic or near-endemic species or subspecies such as the San Joaquin Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum ruddocki), the Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard (Gambelia sila EN), Gilbert’s Skink (Plestiodon gilberti) and the Sierra Garter Snake (Thamnophis couchii). Lizards present in the ecoregion include: Coast Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma coronatum NT); Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis); Southern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata); and the Northern Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea).


There are only five amphibian species extant in the California Central Valley grasslands ecoregion. Special status anuranAn amphibian that has limbs but no tail (includes all frogs and toads) taxa found here are: Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (Rana boylii NT); Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla); and Western Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates cultripes). The only other anuran found here is the Northern Red-legged Frog (Rana aurora). The Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) is the sole salamander occurring within this ecoregion.

Habitat types

caption Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Photograph: Todd Keeler-Wolf/California Dept. of Fish and Game Although many endemic plant species are recognized, especially those associated with vernal pools, e.g. Prickly Spiralgrass (Tuctoria mucronata). A number of invertebrates are known to be restricted to California Central Valley habitats. These include the Delta Green Ground Beetle (Elaphrus viridis CR), known only from a single vernal pool site, and the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus) found only in riparian woodlands of three California counties.

Vernal pool communities occur throughout the Central Valley in seasonally flooded depressions. Several types are recognized including valley pools in basin areas which are typically alkaline or saline, terrace pools on ancient flood terraces of higher ground, and pools on volcanic soils. Vernal pool vegetation is ancient and unique with many habitat and local endemic species. During wet springs, the rims of the pools are encircled by flowers that change in composition as the water recedes. Several aquatic invertebrates are restricted to these unique habitats including a species of fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp.

Riparian forests once bordered many of the valley’s major rivers and their tributaries. Willows, Western Sycamore, Box elder, Fremont Cottonwood, and the Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) were dominant tree species. Some riparian forests and associated woodlands were up to 30 kilometers (km) wide along the lower reaches of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. These are unusual forests for California because the trees are deciduous in winter, perhaps because of the cool, foggy conditions in many parts of the valley. The Marshmallow (Hibiscus moscheutos lasiocarpos) and the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus) are restricted to limited areas of remaining woodlands. Many neotropical migratory birds use these forests for dispersal pathways or breeding habitat. The Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) and the Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), as well as several other riparian specialists, have all declined significantly in California due to loss of riparian forests..

The extensive rivers and lakes of the Central Valley supported vast freshwater marshlands dominated by rushes, bulrushes (tules), sedges, cattails, willows, and floating plants. The Delta and several large lakes such as Tulare, Buena Vista, and Kern were bordered by vast marshes which, in turn, supported huge populations of fish, waterfowl, shorebirds, and blackbirds. Tulare Lake was the largest lake west of the Mississippi River. The native fish fauna was continentally distinctive with four separate Chinook salmon runs and a number of endemic species (and higher taxa) such as the Tule perch, Delta smelt, Sacramento blackfish, Sacramento splittail, Sacramento perch, and the Sacramento sucker.

Conservation status

Habitat loss and degradation

caption Yellow-billed magpie (''Pica nuttalli''), Stanislaus County, California, USA. Source: Peter LaTourrette Virtually all Central Valley habitats have been altered. Introduced annual grasses now dominate grassland habitats. In most habitats native taxa comprise less than one percent of the standing grassland crop. Agricultural development, urban expansion, alteration of hydrologic regimes and channelization, overgrazing by domestic livestock, fires, and introduced plants and animals have all contributed to the pervasive destruction of native habitats.

An estimated 11,310 km2 (2.8 million acres) of vernal pools have been destroyed, or about two thirds of the original extent, with the most intact pools left on the higher terraces. Agriculture, conversion to pastureland, water diversion and channelization, and draining have all taken their toll on these unique habitats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has initiated an ecosystem recovery plan for over forty species dependent upon vernal pools.

Out of 416 km2 of remaining riparian woodland, only about 40 km2 or about one percent of original riparian woodlands can be considered intactThe condition of an ecological habitat being an undisturbed or natural environment, down from an estimated 4000 km2. Channelization, dams, clearing for pasture, flood control, alien plants, overgrazing by domesticated livestock, fires, and logging have taken their toll.

Intensive agricultural development has left few freshwater marshlands (less than six percent of their original extent), and those that are left are generally degraded and heavily managed for duck production, water impoundments, or runoff and effluent storage. Dams, channelization of rivers, and water pollution continue to threaten the unusual and productive freshwater biodiversity of the region.

Remaining blocks of intact habitat

Scattered large vernal pool sites are functionally intactThe condition of an ecological habitat being an undisturbed or natural environment, including vine plains and Jepson Prairie. Many of the largest blocks of desert grassland and scrub in the southern portion of the valley are owned by petroleum extraction companies. Small patches of riparian forests, woodlands, and marshlands are scattered throughout the valley, especially along the Sacramento River and some of its tributaries.

Table Mountains in Butte County represent a special element of refugium grassland, a relict of preservation of relatively pristine Central Valley grasslands. Due to the elevations and enhanced difficulty of access, this habitat was not overrun by cropping agriculture in the same way as the valley floor. Table Mountain contains a remarkable assembly of native flora that are original to the prehistoric California Central Valley grasslands. There are some portions of Table Mountains that are currently subjected to overgrazing by domesticated livestock.

The Kaweah Oaks Preserve near Visalia and the Creighton Ranch near Corcoran conserve remnant oak savanna. The Nature Conservancy’s Cosumnes River Preserve between Stockton and Sacramento conserves one of the best remaining examples of valley oak riparian woodlands. A few notable remnant freshwater marsh sites include the Creighton Ranch Reserve, a relict of Tulare Lake, Gray Lodge, and Butte Sink in the northern valley, portions of the delta, and various managed National Wildlife Refuges scattered throughout the Valley. The huge Carrizo Plain natural area (3,180,000 acres) located immediately west of the valley proper, but representative of the San Joaquin Valley, embraces extensive stands of saltbush scrub, desert grassland, alkali scrub, and wetlands.

Degree of fragmentation

Remaining patches of relatively undisturbed native habitats are all severely fragmented and isolated. Loss of habitat linkages are likely to be most significant for species that rely on contiguous riparian woodlands for dispersal corridors, such as migratory warblers, cuckoos, and reptiles and amphibians. Populations of threatened mammals and reptiles in the southern desert grasslands are also effected by fragmentation. The foothill areas are more intact than the valley floor, but fragmentation has altered them as well.

Degree of protection

A number of important vernal pool sites have been protected within small reserves, such as the Nature Conservancy’s Pixley Reserve in Tulare County, Jepson Prairie Reserve near the Delta, and Vine Plains Preserve near Chico. Several of the larger blocks of desert grasslands in the southern portion of the valley are privately owned by oil companies who work with Federal and State agencies and conservation organizations to manage the areas for biodiversity conservation. Consumnes River Preserve protects some of the last blocks of riparian woodland, marshland, and vernal pools in the valley. A system of managed wetlands owned by private landholders and State and Federal agencies protects large populations of wintering waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway, as well as associated marshland species such as the Giant Garter Snake.

Ecological threat profile

Remaining native habitats are threatened by continuing habitat clearance for agriculture, alteration of hydrologic regimes, dams, channelization, fires, grazing by domestic livestock, and alien species. Over 526 species of introduced plant species are known from California, and many of these occur in the annual grasslands of the Central Valley. Several Federally endangered species occur in the valley including the San Joaquin kit fox, the Blunt-nosed lizard, the Delta Green Ground Beetle (Elaphrus viridis), the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus), the Delta Smelt, and a number of vernal pool plant species. Populations of the Tri-colored Blackbird are also declining precipitously in recent years, due to loss of breeding habitat and changes in agricultural practices. Many amphibian species show dramatic declines associated with habitat loss and introduced predators. Extensive riparian forests and woodlands have been destroyed by decades of tree-cutting, channelization, and flood-control projects. Salinization, toxic runoff, and erosion from ecologically-unsound agricultural practices increasingly degrade habitats.

Suite of priority activities to enhance biodiversity conservation

  • Marshlands and riparian woodlands require extensive ecological restoration. Since alien species of annual grasses dominate grassland and savanna communities, intensive management is required for  restoration of the original prehistoric bunchgrass prairies.
  • Biological corridors between lowland valley habitats and foothill habitats deserve protection and restoration. The Nature Conservancy has identified 385 priority sites in the northern half of the valley.

Conservation partners

  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management
  • California Department of Fish and Game
  • California Native Grass Association
  • California Native Plant Society
  • California Oak Foundation
  • The Nature Conservancy - California Region
  • Sacramento River Preservation Trust

Relationship to other classification schemes

The California Central Valley ecoregion was originally based on Omernik’s Central California Valley ecoregion, although boundaries in some areas have been revised by Bob Holland, an expert on vernal pools and valley vegetation. The nearctic ecoregion has been designated by WWF as unit NA0801. This ecoregion generally corresponds to Bailey’s Great Valley Section, and Küchler’s California prairie, Blue Oak-Digger Pine, and riparian forest vegetation classes in the region.

Neighboring ecoregion


  • Michael G.Barbour, Todd Keeler-Wolf and Allan A. Schoenherr. 2007. Terrestrial vegetation of California. 712 pages
  • Arthur C. Benke and Colbert E. Cushing. 2005. Rivers of North America. Academic Press. ISBN 0120882531.
  • Philip Garone, 2011. The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California's Great Central Valley. University of California Press
  • C. Michael Hogan. 2009. Nassella pulchra: Purple Needle Grass. iGoTerra. ed. N. Stromberg
  • Richard E. Warner and Kathleen M. Hendrix. 1984. California Riparian Systems: Ecology, Conservation, and Productive Management. University of California Press. 1035 pages

Disclaimer: This article contains some information that was originally published by the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




Fund, W., & Hogan, C. (2014). California Central Valley grasslands. Retrieved from


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