U.S. Fish & Wildlife Balks At Giving Joshua Trees Endangered Status

In an announcement that rankled environmentalists and heartened developmental interests and the politicians they bankroll, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday revealed that it will not list Joshua trees under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The declaration that the two types of plants commonly known as Joshua trees – one with the scientific name of yucca brevifolia, referred to in common parlance as the western Joshua tree, and the other known by botanists as the Yucca jaegeriana, called the eastern Joshua tree – is the second setback at the federal level in the last four years for those seeking to insulate the distinctive plants from encroaching development and climate change.
Environmentalists in 2015 asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, to study the status of the trees, their fragility and prospect for survival, seeking a determination that the Joshua Tree is threatened and therefore in need of certain protections. That examination, which began during the Barack Obama Administration, extended itself into the Donald Trump Administration. Slightly more than halfway into President Trump’s tenure in office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the listing “not warranted.”
In response, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians contested that determination and filed suit in November 2019 in the Central District of California, challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, arguing that the agency failed to consider multiple climate models and improperly discounted the best available science with regard to Joshua tree reproduction and dispersal.This week’s outcome means that those intent on seeing official efforts to shield the plant from extinction will now turn to the California, Nevada and Arizona state governments in an effort to have them legislate protections for the two species.
In September 2021, U.S. Federal Judge Otis Wright ruled in favor of WildEarth Guardians, finding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disregarded material information and reached conclusions that were both “arbitrary and capricious” and unsupported by factual evidence. Specifically, as argued by WildEarth Guardians in the case and accepted by Judge Wright, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2019 decision essentially ignored what the latest scientific evaluation revealed, which was that increasing temperatures and prolonged droughts were already impeding successful Joshua tree reproduction in the southern Mojave Desert, a problem that will spread to the majority of both species’ ranges in coming decades. Judge Wright ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to redo its listing decision and account for all the recent science he said it improperly dismissed.
In undertaking its review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service examined threats from competing species, wildfire, climate change and both habitat loss and habitat bifurcation and degradation. The agency came to the conclusion that despite existing environmental factors making things tough on the plants, “none of the threats rose to the level that resulted in the species meeting the definition of a threatened or endangered species throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges.”
In the summary of its decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated, “After a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing Joshua trees as endangered or threatened species is not warranted. However, we ask the public to submit to us any new information that becomes available concerning the threats to the Joshua trees or their habitat at any time.”
In its decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service referenced a degree of equivocation within the endangered species act as regards what constituted the foreseeable future. “We considered time horizons at mid-century (2040–2069) and end of century (2070– 2100) for analyzing future conditions for Joshua trees,” the decision text states. “Climate change and wildfire are the primary threats driving the future condition of Joshua trees at 2040–2069, which is consistent with the primary threats at the end of century. The best available science indicates that both species are long-lived (150–300 years), adapted to hot and dry conditions, and have been exposed to a range of environmental conditions over thousands of years. Both species continue to occupy most of their historical ranges, despite recent increases in temperature on the order of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Centigrade) over the last 40 to 50 years. However, we also consider the potential loss of occupied habitat in localized areas within the warmest and driest portions of the ranges of both species. Also, the best available science does not provide information on the population dynamics and environmental thresholds for the yucca moth species, which are the pollinators for both Joshua tree species. Therefore, we presumed that yucca moth populations will track Joshua tree flowering, as has been experienced in the past, and the moth will experience similar threat effects as described for the Joshua tree including recent site-specific declines in Joshua Tree National Park. We note the high degree of uncertainty regarding these assumptions about the Joshua trees’ and the yucca moths’ responses to climate change which introduces uncertainty into our future projections of species’ status that we cannot quantify at this time; but we have used the best available science in developing them, as the [Endangered Species] Act requires.”
Referencing the existence of threats from competing species, wildfire, climate change and both habitat loss and habitat degradation, together with creeping urbanization, military training in the habitat, renewable energy projects, grazing, off-highway vehicle use and seed predation and animals feeding on the plants, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision stated, “the best available information indicates that these threats have not negatively influenced population dynamics on a population- or species-level scale now and are not projected to negatively influence population dynamics in the foreseeable future. Joshua trees display enough resiliency, redundancy, and representation to not be at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future.”
WildEarth Guardians expressed discomfiture with the decision.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 12-month finding on WildEarth Guardians’ petition only looked towards the species’ risk of extinction between 2040 to 2069, less than 50 years in the future, and concluded that the threats to extinction due to factors such as climate change, wildfires, and drought, amongst others, are ‘not projected to result in population- or species-level declines… because the majority of the range of both species is projected to remain occupied and viable,’” WildEarth Guardians stated in a release put out shortly after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services decision was announced. “However, the decision also notes the huge degree of uncertainty as to the impacts of drought and anticipated temperature change of 3.6–5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040–2069 on both Joshua trees and their specialist pollinators, the yucca moth, and acknowledge the ‘potential for long-term negative effects.’ Notably, while the decision focused on continued occupancy of current range by adult Joshua trees, with lifespans of between 150 and 300 years, it glossed over consideration of these threats on future generations of Joshua trees and the decreased future ‘recruitment’ or ability of Joshua trees to reproduce in the face of climate change.”
Jennifer Schwartz, staff attorney at WildEarth Guardians, said, “We’re incredibly disappointed that the government, once again, has failed to afford future generations of Joshua trees the federal protections and help they need to withstand climate change, but sadly we’re also not surprised. While the Endangered Species Act mandates that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s listing decisions are to be based solely on the best available science, such decisions nevertheless become highly politicized. Now Guardians is forced to explore whether another round of litigation is needed to show that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service again caved to political opposition and arbitrarily disregarded multiple recent studies forecasting the Joshua tree’s future plight.”
According to the WildEarth Guardians website, “Joshua trees have existed for over 2.5 million years, but several published, peer-reviewed models show that climate change will eliminate this beloved plant from the vast majority of its current range, including Joshua Tree National Park, over the coming decades without robust efforts to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and address threats from invasive grass-fueled wildfires. In summer 2020, the Mojave Desert reached a record-breaking 130 degrees. Enormous wildfires like the Dome Fire have decimated thousands of acres of habitat, destroying an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees.”
Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians, said, “The intent of the Endangered Species Act is not to wait until a species is on life support before it can receive any federal protection. This is yet another example of the federal government failing to protect a species before it is too late. We should be proactively putting imperiled species on the path to recovery, not dooming them to hover on the brink of extinction if we truly value preserving biodiversity in this country.”
Former Assemblyman Thurston Smith, who was voted out of office in November, together with Third District San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe and their political supporters, including those who have, in their words, “put their money where their mouth is” and contributed over a hundred thousand dollars to put Rowe, Smith and others with their philosophy into office and to try to keep them there, have characterized the WildEarth Guardians and groups of their ilk pushing to have Joshua trees designated as a threatened or endangered species as tree-huggers who impute a higher level of importance to trees than to humans. They say there are plenty of Joshua Trees, and they resent already existing restrictions on making improvements to land if that development will require removing Joshua trees. People have to go through all sorts of red tape and paperwork just to chop one down, desert property owners say.
Parallel to the effort to have the eastern and western Joshua trees listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act, an effort, initiated by the Center for Biological Diversity, to have the western Joshua tree listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act has been ongoing since 2019.
The California Fish and Game Commission has granted the yucca brevifolia temporary protection as it has conducted hearings on the issue in fits and starts over the last two years, while considering a peer-reviewed report and recommendation relating to the western Joshua tree 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, which was released in April 2022.
According to Barrows, Fleishman, Krantz, Sweet and Yoder, the outlook for the plant, known by its scientific name Yucca brevifolia Engelm, is less than encouraging.
“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.”
Dr. Krantz, as one of the authors of the April recommendation against listing the tree as endangered, indicated in June that he was not in consonance with the recommendation that had been put out under his name and the collective aegis of his colleagues.
“The western Joshua tree is already very much a threatened species,” Krantz told the Sentinel.
-Mark Gutglueck

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