California Looks at Protections for Iconic Joshua Tree

Conservationists say climate change and urban sprawl could erase the Joshua tree from California’s deserts by the end of the century.

The iconic Joshua tree in California’s Mojave Desert.

(CN) — The Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert may get a lifeline from California following the Trump administration’s refusal to give them federal endangered species protection last year.

The emblematic species of the West faces threats from urban sprawl on undeveloped wilderness and the unrelenting effects of climate change. Researchers estimate with more frequent drought and wildfires in California, most or all of the Joshua trees in the Golden State could be gone in the next 80 years.

This past October, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the Joshua tree as threatened, which would require state and local agencies to mitigate harm to the species’ habitat and slow down the destruction of undeveloped land.

On Monday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote in a summary memo there is “sufficient scientific information available to indicate that the petitioned action may be warranted and recommends that the petition be accepted and considered.”

In its 39-page report, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife writes that the petitioners provide enough evidence on the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) that “identifies predation, invasive species, wildfires, climate change, and habitat loss to human development as the factors affecting the ability of western Joshua tree to survive and reproduce, stating that these factors are often related, synergistic, and collectively threaten the continued viability of the species.”

Drought will likely lead to higher deaths of Joshua trees along with invasive grass species which will lead to more frequent fires according to the report’s findings.

Later this summer, the state’s Fish and Game Commission could take up the petition and determine if they will accept Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation to consider the western species of the Joshua tree as a candidate for protection under California’s Endangered Species Act.

“We’re elated that Joshua trees are a step closer to protection,” said Brendan Cummings, the center’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.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, approximately 40% of the Joshua tree range in California is located on private land. Joshua Tree National Park spans an area larger than the state of Rhode Island across portions the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

The Joshua tree was identified as one species until recently, when botanists determined there are two distinct species. The petition seeks to address the species in the national park westward toward the northern slopes of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, through the Antelope Valley, north toward the southern Sierra Nevada and east to the edges of Death Valley National Park and into Nevada.

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