California officials are debating whether to list the iconic Western Joshua tree as an endangered species, a designation that would make it harder to remove the trees for residential, solar or other development projects.
The desert plant is known for its unique appearance, with spiky leaves at the end of its branches, is found in the national park that bears its name about 130 miles (209 kilometers) east of Los Angeles and across a expanse of desert up to Death Valley National Park. There are two types of trees, east and west, but only west is to be considered.
The California Fish & Game Commission took hours of public comment Wednesday and scheduled a vote for Thursday. If the tree is listed as an endangered species, killing one would require special permission from the state.
The state has never listed a species as threatened based primarily on threats from climate change, said Brendan Cummings, director of conservation for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center in 2019 called for the Western Joshua tree to be listed as threatened, saying warmer temperatures and more intense droughts fueled by climate change will make it harder for the species to survive until the end. of the century. He also argued that wildfires and development threats are harming the ability of trees to live and reproduce.
The state’s current drought, which scientists say is among the worst mega-drought in 1,200 years, is likely hurting the trees’ ability to survive, Cummings said.
“We’re probably seeing just one large-scale mortality event right now,” he told the commission.
But the California Department of Fish & Wildlife has recommended not listing the species as threatened. The department acknowledged that areas suitable for Joshua tree growth 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 Joshua Tree?’ The question is, “How bad will it be and how fast?” And the truth is, we don’t know yet,” said Jeb McKay Bjerke, who presented the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation to the commission.
It’s unclear how many Joshua trees exist in the state, but it could range from 4.8 million to 9.8 million, he said. It was a “strong call” for the department not to recommend the species be listed as threatened, he said, and three of the five external peer reviewers who were asked to review the department’s recommendation n disagreed with the conclusion.
About 40% of the state’s Joshua trees are on private land. Many comments focused on the development of residential and solar projects in the area. Several local and state politicians and union workers have said listing the species as threatened would make it harder to advance needed projects, including those aimed at tackling climate change by boosting renewable energy.
California has set a requirement that 100% of its electricity must be generated from non-carbon sources by 2045.
“We believe these types of projects are the best tools in the fight against climate change to protect the future of the Western Joshua tree,” said David Doublet, director of land use planning for 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 jail for the third offense. County Supervisor Dawn Rowe urged council not to list the species as threatened, saying local and county governments were best placed to impose restrictions and respond to the tree’s illegal removal.
“We are your partner in the conservation and preservation of the species,” she said.
But many other speakers argued that the state has no time to waste on listing endangered species, as the state faces warmer temperatures and more extreme droughts and fires, all of which can hurt the trees. Kelly Herbinson, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said Joshua trees are a “keystone” species of the desert, with other species depending on its survival.
“Climate change is a threat we haven’t had to deal with yet and I understand we’re struggling to find the best way forward, but it’s happening and it’s happening now,” he said. she told the commission.
In 2019, the federal government refused to list the tree as a protected species.