The California Fish and Game Commission last month postponed at least until October a decision on whether to list the western Joshua tree as a threatened or endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act.
The four-fifths strength commission heard testimony from 222 people, including some politicians who advocated against providing the tree with the protection that environmentalists, botanists and other members of the scientific community say the species will need to survive.
The commission took up the issue after the federal government declined to list the western Joshua tree as a protected species and the Center for Biological Diversity in October 2019 petitioned the California Department of Fish & Wildlife to list the Western Joshua tree as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act.
In April 2022, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife released a peer-reviewed report and recommendation assembled by Dr. Cameron Barrows of the University of California Riverside, Dr. Erica Fleishman of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, Dr. Timothy Krantz with the University of Redlands, Dr. Lynn Sweet with the University of California, Riverside and Dr. Jeremy B. Yoder from California State University Northridge.
According to Barrows, Fleishman, Krantz, Sweet and Yoder, the outlook for the plant is grim. “The population size and area occupied by [the] western Joshua tree have declined since European settlement largely due to habitat modification and destruction, a trend that has continued to the present,” the report states. “Primary threats to the species are climate change, development and other human activities, and wildfire. Available species distribution models suggest that areas predicted to be suitable for [the] western Joshua tree based on 20th Century climate data will decline substantially through the end of the 21st Century as a result of climate change, especially in the southern and lower elevational portions of its range.”
Nevertheless, the scientists said, “the department does not currently have information demonstrating that loss of areas with 20th Century suitable climate conditions will result in impacts on existing populations that are severe enough to threaten to eliminate the species from a significant portion of its range by the end of the 21st Century. The effects of development and other human activities will cause western Joshua tree habitat and populations to be lost, particularly in the southern part of the species’ range, but many populations within the range of the species are protected from development, suggesting that a significant portion of the species’ range will not be lost by development alone. Wildfire can also kill over half of western Joshua trees in areas that burn, and wildfire impacted approximately 2.5% of the species’ range in each of the last two decades, but wildfire does not appear to result in loss of range, only lowering of abundance within the species’ range.”
Barrows, Fleishman, Krantz, Sweet and Yoder stated that “the evidence presented in favor of the petitioned action, the scientific evidence that is currently possessed by the department does not demonstrate that populations of the species are negatively trending in a way that would lead the department to believe that the species is likely to be in serious danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range in the foreseeable future. The department recommends that the commission find that the recommended action to list [the] western Joshua tree as a threatened species is not warranted.”
During the two-day public hearing the Fish and Game Commission held on the matter last month at which a decision on whether to extend the protection to the tree had been anticipated, two of San Bernardino County’s politicians, Assemblyman Thurston Smith and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, piled on with requests that the commission not grant the protective status.
“Listing the western Joshua tree as threatened would have permanent economic impacts on my constituents,” Smith said.
The commission should stand down and let politicians enact protection for the tree, Rowe suggested.
If the tree-huggers have their way and the western Joshua tree is designated as a threatened or endangered species, those restrictions would make tree more important than humans, others said, meaning that people will have to go through all sorts of red tape and paperwork just to chop one down.
It was pointed out that there are up to 9.8 million Joshua trees in California, and they cover some 5,500 square miles.
Nevertheless, State Fish and Game staff told the commission during the hearings that the trees reproduce very slowly and only under relatively precise conditions.
The more than 900-page staff report the commission reviewed before the June hearing had conflicting information about the survivability of the trees. Some of the report’s citations indicated the tree is in danger. While staff did recommend against listing the trees as threatened, subsequent reviews of the recommendation found errors within the cited materials upon which that recommendation relied, and sixty percent of the recommendation’s peer reviewers disagreed with its conclusion.
According to a study published in June 2029 by the UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology in conjunction with other scientists, at least 80 percent of the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park will be extinct by 2100.
Dr. Timothy Krantz, one of the authors of the April recommendation against listing the tree as endangered indicated in June that he was not in consonance with that recommendation.
“The western Joshua tree is already very much a threatened species,” Krantz said.
It was noted that the model used in Barrows’, Fleishman’s, Krantz’s, Sweet’s and Yoder’s April recommendation was based upon 20th Century climate data, which did not reflect the acceleration in global warming.
Ultimately, the commission split on a vote as to whether to give the species protected status, thereafter agreeing to revisit the issue in October.
Some of the testimony given during the June hearing by those advocating against granting the protection appeared to have had an effect opposite to what was intended. Commissioner Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, who was one of the two votes against listing the species as endangered, nevertheless indicated, in consonance with her commission colleagues, that politicians could not be entrusted with determining what protections the trees should be provided.