(CN) — For 2.5 million years, the Joshua tree has been a fixture of the Southern California desert, greeting everyone from the region’s earliest settlers to its throngs of modern-day tourists. That lengthy reign may be nearing an end in the coming decades, however, due to rising temperatures, increasingly severe droughts and California’s seemingly endless wildfires.
Thought to be named after the biblical figure by Mormon settlers traversing the desert in the mid-1800s, Joshua trees — which are most commonly found in the Mojave Desert — were dubbed such because of their unique limbs branching “upwards to heaven.” Joshua Tree National Park, where most of the trees are located, owes its name to the trees.
A bit of a misnomer, Joshua trees belong to the Yucca genus, meaning they’re actually succulents rather than trees. They occupy a range encompassing 12 million acres extending from Arizona to Utah, and from Southeastern California to Nevada. The plants commonly referred to as “Joshua trees” were recently classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as being two distinct species — Yucca brevifolia and Yucca jaegeriana — though they’ve long been lumped together under their nickname.
They’re a slow growing and long-lived plant; a Joshua tree can take up to 60 years to reach its full size, and live for 500 years or longer. The oldest known Joshua tree is estimated to be around 1,000 years old.
The iconic species may get another chance at inclusion under the Endangered Species Act after a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in favor of WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group championing the Joshua tree’s cause.
The court found Fish and Wildlife acted in a way that was “arbitrary, capricious, contrary to the best scientific and commercial data available, and otherwise not in accordance with the ESA” in its decision not to list the tree under the act, while denying the service’s motion for a summary judgment.
“Without having read the decision in full, I think this is probably the correct outcome,” said Dr. Jeremy B. Yoder, assistant professor of biology at California State University, Northridge. “Joshua trees face very clear threats from changing climate, increasingly frequent wildfires, and encroaching development, and USFWS excluded important tools for understanding those threats from its earlier assessment of risks to the species. Formal protection under the ESA is only a starting point for building the kind of comprehensive management plans that can ensure Joshua trees will still be a part of the Mojave Desert landscape in future generations, but it's an important first step.”
WildEarth Guardians claims climate change poses an imminent threat to the tree’s survival, which must be protected lest it be pushed past the point of no return sometime by the end of the century. The group originally filed its petition in 2015 during the Obama administration, but met with resistance soon after former president Trump took office with a decidedly pro-industry attitude that pushed environmental concerns to the periphery.
Despite thriving for more than 2.5 million years, numerous climate models have demonstrated the threat to the trees posed by climate change as temperatures continue to soar in the region and wildfires worsen yearly across California. During the summer of 2020, the Mojave Desert reached an absolutely scorching 130 degrees while the Dome Fire destroyed thousands of acres of Joshua Tree habitat, torching around 1.3 million Joshua trees in all. Those models predict the famed desert plant will be eradicated from most of its current range, including its namesake national park, by the end of the 21st century if measures aren’t put in place soon to protect them.
“I am very happy that the court found that Joshua trees need to be critically examined as to their status,” said Laura Cunningham, California director of the nonparty environmental nonprofit Western Watersheds Project. “For example, the California and southern Nevada deserts are experiencing a huge build-out of utility-scale solar energy projects on public land private lands, many of which destroy thousands of Joshua trees. For example, the Aratina Solar Project application in Kern County near Boron, California, is proposed on one of the densest Joshua tree woodlands in the west Mojave. We hope that solar developers will reconsider siting on high-value Joshua tree habitats as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Review moves forward."
She added: “Also, off-roading and livestock grazing impact Joshua trees, and therefore public land agencies should reconsider management in light of the possible future status of Joshua trees, which need much better protection and conservation now, during the climate emergency. They are a long-lived tree, and we cannot simply keep bulldozing them for development or resource extraction, and expect the species to survive for future generations.”
In response to WildEarth Guardian’s 2015 petition, the service issued a 90-day finding citing the “substantial scientific and commercial information indicating that listing the Joshua tree as threatened may be warranted.” At that point the service was tasked with completing a 12-Month Finding considering a host of factors including the threat posed to the plant’s natural habitat as well as other “natural or manmade factors affecting [its] continued existence.” That 12-Month Finding took closer to three years to complete, and the service ultimately determined the species’ inclusion under the ESA was not warranted.
The service’s report concluded that while the Joshua trees’ southern range does suffer from “biologically meaningful threats,” certain areas exist where the trees are predicted to continue thriving. The finding also predicted habitat expansion to the north and west could compensate for declining numbers in vulnerable areas of its southern range, and said wildfires do not pose a significant risk to the tree’s continued survival in the region.
That’s simply not true, WildEarth Guardians says. “The best available science shows the Joshua tree is threatened by climate change, wildfire, habitat loss, low germination, slow growth and limited capacity to migrate, and the service disregarded these threats and their cumulative impact,” the group says in its petition.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II, a George W. Bush appointee, set aside the service’s 12-Month Finding and instructed the agency to reconsider its earlier decision.
“The court’s decision represents a monumental step forward for the Joshua tree, but also for all climate-imperiled species whose fate relies upon the service following the law and evaluating the best scientific data available with respect to forecasting future climate change impacts,” said Jennifer Schwartz, staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians and lead attorney on the case, in a statement. “The court’s unequivocal holding — that the service cannot summarily dismiss scientific evidence that runs counter to its conclusions — will force the federal government to confront the reality of climate change and begin focusing on how to help species adapt.”
A representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
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