Editorial: Joshua Trees, Threatened by Climate Change, Deserve California’s Protection

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The Joshua Tree, a singular but endangered feature of California’s high desert, faces a bleak long-term future due to the interconnected threats of development, wildfires, drought and climate change.

But efforts to ensure these beloved trees survive into the next century have met with a serious setback. In a report released Wednesday, scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife not recommended listing the Joshua tree as threatened under the state’s endangered species law, saying it is not in serious danger of extinction for the foreseeable future.

It’s a troubling development as it follows decades of warnings from scientists that Joshua trees face an existential threat from climate change and could be wiped out if nothing is done to protect them.

The recommendation followed a Petition 2019 by the Center for Biological Diversity which sought to protect the Western Joshua tree, one of two distinct species that live in California and cited climate change as the “greatest threat” to its continued existence.

The discovery bodes ill for spindly trees with sharp, bayonet-shaped leaves and shaggy outstretched limbs that evoke arms reaching skyward. Scientists predict that the Western Joshua tree could lose more than 90% of its current habitat in the Mojave Desert by the end of the century, as hotter and drier conditions due to climate change and other human and environmental pressures are causing it to die more and more.

The state’s scientific review indicates that climate change is expected to continue fueling the dwindling numbers of western Joshua trees over the coming decades, particularly in the southern and lower elevation parts of its range. , where up to 42% of its habitat could be lost to urban growth. and the development of renewable energies by the end of the century. But the department said it does not expect the tree to be “at serious risk of extinction” by the end of the century due to climate change.

Joshua trees are “currently abundant and widespread, reducing the overall relative impact of threats to the species and significantly reducing the threat of extinction for the foreseeable future,” the report said.

But it would be short-sighted for state wildfire officials to do nothing to protect the trees, which can live for about 200 years, because they are not facing imminent extinction. Delaying action will only make it more difficult to save them.

Notably, some of the state report’s independent peer reviewers have criticized its assumptions and conclusions, saying the department overestimates the uncertainty of science and mischaracterizes climate change as a future rather than a current threat, while n fact there is no doubt that Joshua trees are at risk of being wiped out from most of their current range without additional protections.

The state’s Fish and Game Commission has the final say on whether to list Joshua trees as threatened, with a decision expected this summer. If he decides not to list Joshua trees as endangered, the temporary legal protections the commission granted in 2020, making it illegal to kill them without special permits, would end.

But the governor’s five-member committee has an opportunity to take a broader, more cautious approach that recognizes the threat multiplier effect of climate change, which has already caused extinctions and threatens widespread species loss in the world. A state listing is seen as the best hope to save California’s Joshua trees after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found in 2019 that southwestern Joshua trees did not warrant federal endangered species protection. of disappearance.

There are powerful development interests fighting an endangered species designation for the Joshua tree, including renewable energy companies that face restrictions on solar and wind power projects that need to eliminate them. But the fact that Joshua trees are at the center of competing demands, to generate carbon-free electricity that will help slow climate change on the one hand and to preserve desert lands on the other, only shows the value of the kind of careful planning and consideration that would be given in listing them as threatened.

Wildlife officials can proactively use their power to protect the imperiled California desert from the impacts of climate change and help save a key species from eradication.

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