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State recommends protection for iconic Joshua trees


California's Department of Fish & Wildlife has recommended Joshua trees be protected under the state's Endangered Species Act.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended that the iconic western Joshua tree be protected as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The recommendation came after the department received a petition in October, 2019, from the Center for Biological Diversity to list the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) as endangered under CESA.


"Based on the petition and other information provided, possessed or received, DFW has determined that there is sufficient scientific information available to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted and recommends that the petition be accepted and considered."


This is a significant step toward listing the species as endangered in California. The department is scheduled to determine if the listing may be warranted at its June 24-25 meeting. If the listing is determined that it could be warranted, the department will review the status of the species and provide a written, peer-reviewed report before a final decision on listing the species.


“We’re elated that Joshua trees are a step closer to protection,” said Brendan Cummings, the Center for Biological Diversity’s conservation director and a Joshua Tree resident. “These beautiful trees face huge threats that could drive them extinct in the wild. We urge the state to finalize these protections quickly so Joshua trees can survive and thrive in California for generations to come.”


Studies have shown climate change could push the Mojave's quirky and endearing Joshua trees to die off because of hotter and drier conditions, with fewer younger trees becoming established. The trees are already failing to reproduce at the drier, lower elevations of their range. Scientists have projected that the Joshua tree could die off within its namesake park by the end of this century. Despite these findings, the Trump administration has denied federal protection for the species.


“California needs to ensure these spectacular trees remain part of California’s landscape in perpetuity,” said Cummings. “The Trump administration has abdicated its responsibility to save Joshua trees and hundreds of other species threatened by climate change. The state must fill that void and lead efforts to ensure the Joshua tree’s survival.”


According to the CBD, approximately 40 percent of the western Joshua tree's range in California is on private land, with only a small fraction protected from development. Projects indicate virtually all of this habitat could be lost without stronger legal protections for the trees.


“The California Endangered Species Act may be the only hope for saving these iconic symbols of the Mojave Desert,” said Cummings. “Joshua trees are uprooted or bulldozed on a daily basis to make way for roads, powerlines, strip malls and vacation rentals right up to the borders of our national parks. If these beautiful plants are to have any hope of surviving the difficult decades ahead, we have to stop killing them.”


Joshua trees are routinely destroyed with impunity by large and small developers, and local and county government consistently fail to protect sensitive desert species, despite having their own protections in place. Permits are granted for destruction of the trees after the fact, and there is a lack of enforcement that proves the need for state-level endangered species protection. Mojave Watch has witnessed repeated illegal destruction of Joshua trees that were supposedly protected and required a permit to move or destroy, with no repercussions from local and county government.


The Joshua tree has recently been recognized as composed of two distinct species, the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the eastern Joshua tree (Y. jaegeriana). The two species occupy different areas of the desert, are genetically and morphologically distinguishable, and have different pollinating moths.


The Fish and Wildlife recommendation pertains to the western species, which has a boomerange-shaped range stretching from Joshua Tree National Park westward along the northern slopes of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, through the Antelope Valley, northward along the eastern flanks of the southern Sierra Nevada, and eastward to the edges of Death Valley National Park on into Nevada.


The species is found only within a specific range of temperature and precipitation, restricting the range. Increased temperatures, reduction in precipitation, development, wildfires, invasive species, and other threats could endanger the continued viability of the species.


If Joshua trees become protected under California’s Endangered Species Act, state and local agencies will be required to manage threats to them, including developing a recovery plan outlining a strategy to protect the species in the face of climate change.


The report on the petition for listing from the Center for Biological Diversity finds: "In completing its Petition Evaluation, the Department has determined the Petition provides sufficient scientific information to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted for western Joshua tree. Therefore, the Department recommends the Commission accept the Petition for further consideration under CESA."


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