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Washington State USA has a law that requires counties to designate and protect "Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas." The legal rules for implementing this statute include language strongly suggesting that rare native plants fall within the statute's protection mandate and some counties have done this. The county I live in disputes this, maintaining that "plants are not wildlife.". The standard rule in law is that if a term is undefined in the statute where its used resort is made to a dictionary. Indeed, out of 30+ definitions of "wildlife" I found by googling "wildlife definition" about 2/3 are not limited to only fauna (animals). I would like to trace the expansion of the meaning of this word. Is there a way to do this without resorting to physically visiting numerous libraries to see the word's meaning in multiple editions of different dictionaries at different times? Any suggestions are appreciated. -Steve, Whidbey Environmental Action Network

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If your quest is purely linguistic, I feel certain you'll have to do a lot of legwork. Copies of OED will probably be invaluable. If it is aimed at clarification of the legal situation, you need to first check which authority holds sway here (as Gary's Student implies), and then, if 'The standard rule in law is that if a term is undefined in the statute where its used resort is made to a dictionary' still applies, point out to the authority that this is nonsensical where different dictionaries disagree. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 9 '14 at 22:39
Could could you go to your county courthouse and see what dictionary they have to hand? – Dan Bron Aug 9 '14 at 23:24
Every law generally has a clause, mostly at the very beginning, setting out the terminology: "For the purpose of this law, 'Wildlife' means (whatever is intended to be)." In the absence of such a 'local definition,' the law may need a review. – Kris Aug 10 '14 at 5:23
The county's opinion is not relevant. – Kris Aug 10 '14 at 5:24
@Kris So much for democracy. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 11 '14 at 0:19

My experience is similar to yours; I had to see at least five dictionaries to find one that did not list plants.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: wild animals and vegetation, especially animals living in a natural, undomesticated state.

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers: (Biology) wild animals and plants collectively

Oxford Dictionary: Wild animals collectively; the native fauna (and sometimes flora) of a region.

MacMillan: animals, birds, and plants that live in natural conditions

Webster's: animals living and plants growing in their natural environment

However: NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL: animals living in the wilderness without human intervention.

I think most dictionaries will back you up. Physically seeking dictionaries in this age of internet access seem (to me) unnecessary. Google books should be of help to you in this. The Free Dictionary lists years of publication of at least three dictionaries. I imagine Google books will have more.

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Modern classifications separate plants and fungi :-O – Edwin Ashworth Aug 9 '14 at 23:36
Oh, dear. Have I made a mistake I can't see? (I need an editor.) – medica Aug 10 '14 at 0:07
No, but I think that Washington State is going to have fun if it wants to prosecute people picking rare mushrooms :-) – Edwin Ashworth Aug 11 '14 at 0:17

I don't know if Federal Statues apply, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service monitors activities under the Endangered Species Act. In Section 3 of this Act:

(8) The term “fish or wildlife” means any member of the animal kingdom, including without limitation any mammal, fish, bird (including any migratory, nonmigratory, or endangered bird for which protection is also afforded by treaty or other international agreement), amphibian, reptile, mollusk, crustacean, arthropod or other invertebrate, and includes any part, product, egg, or offspring thereof, or the dead body or parts thereof.

You should check if there are any court decisions mandating the Federal definition.

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