Fish & Wildlife Mulls Protecting Joshua Trees Under California Endangered Species Act

The once plentiful desert tree named by California’s earliest Mormon settlers after the Old Testament character who was Moses’s right hand man during the exodus of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land is under serious consideration for being listed as an endangered species.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, in reaction to an environmental group’s assertion that western Joshua trees have been brought closer to extinction by development, climate change, drought and increasing numbers of wildfires, recommended on Monday, April 13 that its board of commissioners take action to give the desert-specific yucca brevifolia, as the Joshua tree is known scientifically, protection.
A monocotyledonous tree, meaning its seeds are typically contained in only one embryonic leaf or cotyledon, the Joshua tree is native to the arid southwestern United States, specifically California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, where it is confined mostly to the Mojave Desert between 1,300 feet and 5,900 feet in elevation.
“Scientists earlier this year projected that the Joshua tree will be largely gone from its namesake national park by the end of the century,” according to a statement from Brendan Cummings of the Center For Biological Diversity, an environmental group.
Last year the Donald Trump Administration denied federal protection for the species.
“California needs to ensure these spectacular trees remain part of California’s landscape in perpetuity,” said Cummings. “The Trump administration has abdicated its responsibility to save Joshua trees and hundreds of other species threatened by climate change. The state must fill that void and lead efforts to ensure the Joshua tree’s survival.”
Cummings pointed out that Joshua trees already are failing to reproduce at drier, lower elevations.
The trees have been afforded some level of protection within Joshua Tree National Park, which lies within San Bernardino County. However, outside the park off-road vehicle use, cattle grazing, powerlines and pipelines and large-scale energy projects are destroying its habitat. Approximately 40 percent of the western Joshua tree’s range in California is on private land, with only a minute percentage protected from development. The Center For Biological Diversity has projected that virtually all of this habitat will be lost without stronger legal protections for the trees.
“The California Endangered Species Act may be the only hope for saving these iconic symbols of the Mojave Desert,” said Cummings. “Joshua trees are uprooted or bulldozed on a daily basis to make way for roads, powerlines, strip malls and vacation rentals right up to the borders of our national parks. If these beautiful plants are to have any hope of surviving the difficult decades ahead, we have to stop killing them.”
The Joshua tree has recently been recognized as composed of two distinct species, the western Joshua tree (yucca brevifolia) and the eastern Joshua tree (yucca jaegeriana). The two species occupy different areas of the desert, are genetically and morphologically distinguishable, and have different pollinating moths.
The April 13 recommendation addresses the western species, and came in response to a petition the Center for Biological Diversity filed with the state in October, asking for western Joshua trees to be protected under the California Endangered Species Act. In June California’s Fish and Game Commission will decide whether to accept the department’s recommendation and grant the imperiled plants candidate status under state law. A candidate designation triggers a yearlong review of whether the species should be formally protected under the state act. The species is legally protected during the review period.
If the state makes that designation, it will join with the cities of Hesperia, Palmdale, Victorville, Yucca Valley and both Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, which have already passed Joshua tree habitat protection ordinances.
-Mark Gutglueck

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