For Immediate Release, April 13, 2022

Contact:

Brendan Cummings, (951) 768-8301, bcummings@biologicaldiversity.org

State Wildlife Agency Recommends Ending Protection for California’s Climate-Threatened Western Joshua Trees

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— In a report released today, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended ending interim protections for imperiled western Joshua trees, opening the door for widespread destruction of one of California’s most iconic species.

In September 2020 the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to grant western Joshua trees candidate status under the California Endangered Species Act, giving them interim legal protections and triggering a status review by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The current state protections make killing Joshua trees illegal without special permits.

“California wildlife officials just proposed open season on Joshua trees,” said Brendan Cummings, the Center for Biological Diversity’s conservation director and a Joshua Tree resident. “Before state protections took effect, developers were bulldozing these beautiful, fragile trees by the thousands to build roads, warehouses, power plants, strip malls and vacation rentals. If Joshua trees are to have any hope of surviving in a warming world, we have to stop the widespread killing of them.”

The department sent its review to the commission today. In June the commission is scheduled to make a final decision about whether to permanently protect the trees or end their current protections.

The commission’s interim protection decision came in response to a 2019 petition from the Center seeking to protect the species in the face of threats from climate change, fire and development. The law requires state protection if a species is likely to become endangered in a significant portion of its range within the foreseeable future.

The department’s status review acknowledged that western Joshua trees are being harmed by climate change and other threats, but concluded the loss of the species from its namesake national park and most of its range in the coming decades is not significant.

“The department’s recommendation is scientifically and legally flawed and reflects an agency either unwilling or unable to rise to the challenge that climate change presents to California’s natural heritage,” said Cummings. “Fortunately, the commission has the final say on whether Joshua trees maintain the legal protection they’re entitled to and so desperately need.”

Last year the commission voted twice to protect imperiled fish under the California Endangered Species Act after the department had recommended against protection.

If western Joshua trees win permanent protection, state and local agencies will have to manage threats to them, including developing a recovery plan to protect the species in the face of climate change and other threats.

“California positions itself as a global leader in addressing climate change, but at least one branch of the Newsom administration acts as if climate threats can be ignored,” said Cummings. “The state’s upcoming decision on protecting Joshua trees is a litmus test that will show whether its climate leadership is real or just empty rhetoric.”

Background
While the killing of western Joshua trees by developers is the most visible threat, climate change and fire are also pushing the species toward extinction.

Recent studies show Joshua trees are already dying off because of hotter, drier conditions, with very few younger trees becoming established. Even greater changes are projected over the coming decades.

Scientists in 2019 projected that Joshua trees will be largely gone from their namesake national park by the end of the century. An earlier study projected the species will be lost from virtually its entire range in California.

Prolonged droughts are expected to be more frequent and intense over the coming decades, shrinking the species’ range and leading to more tree deaths. Higher elevations, where some Joshua trees might survive increasing temperatures and drying conditions, are at risk of fire because of invasive non-native grasses.

Approximately 40% of the western Joshua tree’s range in California is on private land, with only a tiny fraction protected from development. Current projections show that virtually all this habitat will be lost without stronger legal protections for the trees.

Joshua trees come in two distinct species: the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the eastern Joshua tree (Y. jaegeriana). The two species occupy different areas of the desert, are genetically and morphologically distinguishable, and have different pollinating moths. Only the western species is currently a candidate under the California Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.