Lawyers urge California to put West Joshua Tree on endangered species list

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A group of more than 100 people gathered for a rally at the Mojave Desert Land Trust headquarters to rally support for placing the Western Joshua Tree on the state’s endangered and threatened species list. .

Speakers at Thursday’s Joshua Tree event discussed the threats to the iconic plant and the tree’s importance to other desert species, including humans.

“It helps create oxygen, it helps feed pollinators, it helps sequester carbon to help mitigate our climate change,” said Kelly Herbinson, co-executive director of MDLT. “Just being that protects us as a species.”

The California Fish and Game Commission is expected to make the final decision June 15-16 on whether to list the Western Joshua tree as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act.

Listing would give the tree – which is actually a succulent and part of the genus Yucca – the protections it has enjoyed since gaining candidate status in September 2020.

These protections include a ban on importing, exporting, taking or killing, buying and selling the plant, unless authorized.

The Western Joshua Tree was given candidate status while the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a review to determine if it should be considered threatened.

Last month, the department released a report to the commission that recommended not listing the tree under the Endangered Species Act.

A Joshua tree is silhouetted by the moon as a plane flies over Joshua Tree National Park in the early morning Monday August 11, 2008 in Joshua Tree, California.

Although the department acknowledged that many factors threaten the Western Joshua Tree, particularly warmer temperatures reducing its habitat, state officials said the tree “is currently abundant and widespread, reducing the overall relative impact of threats on the species and greatly reduces the threat of extinction for the foreseeable future.

“Further, the Department does not have the data necessary to determine how changes in climate that are expected to occur in the foreseeable future are likely to affect the range of Joshua trees in western California in this time frame,” according to the report.

Desert cities and trade groups, such as the High Desert Association of Realtors, have opposed the listing and argue that existing regulations do enough to protect the species.

About 40% of the western Joshua tree’s range is on private land. If the plant were protected, its development would become more difficult.

Brendan Cummings, attorney and director of conservation for the Center for Biological Diversity, is the author of the 2019 petition asking that the tree be considered endangered.

He described the report in a statement in April as “scientifically and legally flawed” and expressed similar beliefs at Thursday’s rally. Cummings and Cameron Barrows, a retired conservation biologist, said four out of five independent scientists and experts who peer-reviewed the report – including Barrows – disagreed with the department’s recommendation.

Brendan Cummings speaks during the Mojave Desert Land Trust's Save the Western Joshua Tree event at the nonprofit's headquarters in Joshua Tree on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Western Joshua trees face a difficult road to reach reproductive maturity, which can take 30 to 50 years. They only bloom in certain years and are only pollinated by a certain species of moth.

The seeds should be dispersed by rodents and buried without being eaten first. The seeds only germinate under optimal conditions.

Cummings cited a study that found that less than 1% of seeds produce seedlings.

“Even without climate change, Joshua trees have a very hard time reproducing,” he said.

With a 3 degree Celsius rise in temperatures, suitable habitat for the Joshua tree would be reduced by 90%, according to a study partly led by Barrows who also spoke at the rally.

Another 2019 study found that if major changes were made to reduce greenhouse gases, the efforts would only save 19% of the western Joshua tree habitat in Joshua Tree National Park by now. the end of the century.

Without emission reductions, the park would be left roughly without its namesake factory with 0.02% suitable habitat.

Wildfires are also a threat as climate change has led to the sprouting of invasive weeds in the desert. More fuel means more destructive fires, as seen in August 2020 when the Dome Fire in the Mojave National Preserve scorched more than 44,000 acres in one of the Joshua Tree Forests. densest and largest in the world.

The Dome Fire burns at the Mojave National Preserve near Cima, Calif., Monday, August 17, 2020.

Cummings cited a statement from the Fish and Wildlife report that said the department “expects any change in the western range of the Joshua tree that is ultimately caused by climate change to occur. probably very slowly, possibly over thousands of years” based on the fossil record following climate change.

A report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has revealed that the Earth is warming faster than previously thought and that the global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next 20 coming years.

“We don’t have a thousand years to protect Joshua trees,” Cummings said. “It’s time to act.”

According to biologist Barrows, western Joshua trees are a keystone species that have a significant effect on their habitat and are considered essential to an ecosystem.

At least two species of insects would disappear without their presence, and four species of reptiles and eight or nine types of birds would be affected if the tree disappeared.

“What we’re talking about is the world becoming much, much less diverse, less species-rich,” he said.

Daily Press journalist Martin Estacio can be reached at 760-955-5358 or ME Stacio@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.

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