California officials are evaluating whether to list the iconic western Joshua tree as an endangered species, a designation that would make it difficult to remove the trees for housing, solar or other development projects.
The desert plant is known for its unique appearance, with spiky leaves at the end of its branches, it is found in the national park that bears its name about 209 kilometers east of Los Angeles and across a stretch of desert to Death National Park. of the Valley. There are two types of trees, the eastern and the western, but only the western one is considered.
The California Fish and Game Commission took hours of public comment on Wednesday and scheduled a vote for Thursday. If the tree is listed as an endangered species, killing one would require special state approval.
The state has never listed a species as endangered based primarily on threats from climate change, said Brendan Cummings, director of conservation at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center requested in 2019 that the western Joshua tree be listed as endangered, saying higher temperatures and more intense periods of drought fueled by climate change will make it harder for the species to survive through the end of the century. It also argued that forest fires and threats to development undermine the ability of trees to live and reproduce.
The state’s ongoing drought, which scientists say is part of the worst megadrought in 1,200 years, is likely hampering the trees’ ability to survive, Cummings said.
“We are probably witnessing a single large-scale mortality event right now,” he told the commission.
But the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended not listing the species as endangered. The department acknowledged that areas suitable for Joshua trees to grow in the west are likely to decline due to climate change by 2100. But it said in an April report that the tree remained “abundant and widespread,” which reduces the risk of extinction.
“The question is not, ‘Will climate change be bad for the Joshua tree?’ The question is, ‘How bad will it be and how quickly?’ And the truth is, we still don’t know,” said Jeb McKay Bjerke, who presented the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation to the commission.
It is not known how many Joshua trees there are in the state, but it could be anywhere from 4.8 million to 9.8 million, he said. It was a “close call” for the department not to recommend listing the species as endangered, he said, and three of the five external reviewers who were asked to review the department’s recommendation disagreed with the conclusion.
About 40% of the Joshua trees in the state are on private land. Many of the comments focused on the development of housing and solar projects in the region. Several local and state politicians and union workers said listing the species as endangered would make it more difficult to move forward with needed projects, including those aimed at combating climate change by pushing renewable energy.
California has set a requirement that 100% of its electricity be produced from non-carbon sources by 2045.
“We believe these types of projects are the best tools in combating climate change to protect the future of the western Joshua tree,” said David Doublet, director of land use planning in San Bernardino County, which has a high concentration of trees and lots of solar energy. projects.
San Bernardino County, which includes Joshua Tree National Park, recently increased penalties for illegally removing Joshua trees — a $20,000 fine and six months in prison for the third offense. County supervisor Dawn Rowe urged the council not to list the species as endangered, saying local and county governments are better prepared to set restrictions and respond to illegal removal of the tree.
“We are your partner in the conservation and preservation of the species,” she said.
But several other speakers argued that the state has no time to waste in listing the species as endangered, as the state faces hotter, drier temperatures and more extreme fires, both of which can damage trees. Kelly Herbinson, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said Joshua trees are a “key” species in the desert, with other species dependent on their survival.
“Climate change is a threat that we have not yet had to deal with and I understand that we are struggling to figure out the best way forward, but it is happening and it is happening now,” she told the commission.
In 2019, the federal government refused to list the tree as a protected species.