Are Joshua trees a threatened species? California delays decision until October – San Bernardino Sun

Conservationists, builders, tribal communities, local governments and the solar industry will have to wait another four months for a decision on whether the western Joshua tree is a threatened species.

Before the conclusion of its two-day meeting Thursday, June 16, the California Fish and Game Commission heard testimony from more than 220 people about whether it should list the iconic tree as a threatened or endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. The other species of Joshua tree — the eastern Joshua tree — was not being considered for the threatened designation.

“We have multiple competing priorities,” commission President Samantha Murray said Thursday. “So I ask we all operate from a place of grace and empathy.”

Ultimately, the evenly split four-person commission postponed a decision until its October meeting.

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Designating the western Joshua tree as threatened or endangered would mean additional restrictions on construction and development in the trees’ Mojave Desert habitat, requiring state approval to kill one.

Today, there are up to 9.8 million Joshua trees in California, occupying an area of land larger than the state of Connecticut. But, state Fish and Game staff said this week, they also reproduce very slowly, and under very specific conditions.

There have been increasing calls to protect the plants — which are yucca, related to palm trees — in recent years.

A paper published in June 2019 by researchers at UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology, and other institutes, predicts that at least 80% of the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park will be wiped out by 2100.

“The western Joshua tree is already very much a threatened species,” Tim Krantz, a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Redlands, said Wednesday.

Climate change has made summer temperatures in the park higher than ever, winter temperatures lower and increased drought conditions. Strands of trees that have stood for thousands of years will likely die off, leaving only those in the highest elevations, although continuing climate change will eventually get them too, according to researchers.

In the 2019 study’s worst-case scenario, the 160,000 acres of land in Joshua Tree National Park capable of supporting the iconic trees will drop to just 37 acres by 2100.

“There are a lot of needs for land now,” Kelly Herbinson, with the Mojave Desert Land Trust, told the commission Wednesday. “(But) we also really need thriving, healthy ecosystems.”

She called the western Joshua tree a “lynchpin” for the desert ecosystem.

The land the Joshua trees occupy is also sought after by homebuilders and the solar industry, who are building solar farms in the region. Both endeavors will face increased restrictions on where and how they can build if the western Joshua tree is listed as a threatened species.

About half of the more than 220 people who spoke Wednesday, the first day of the hearing, opposed giving the trees additional legal protections, citing the economic impacts of doing so, and said local governments could protect the trees without the need for state intervention.

“Listing the western Joshua tree as threatened would have permanent economic impacts on my constituents,” Assemblyman Thurston “Smitty” Smith, R-Apple Valley, told the commission Wednesday. Smith is the former mayor of Hesperia, which features a Joshua tree on its crest. But the city, like much of the High Desert, relies on home building for many of its jobs, and Smith said employment opportunities will decrease if the western Joshua tree is listed as a threatened species.

Solar industry representatives, including solar farm workers, warned that the designation would cost jobs and slow California’s progress toward carbon-free electricity generation by 2045.

Town and city council members from across the High Desert, as well as state legislators and county supervisors from San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, urged the commission to not list the tree as a threatened species.

San Bernardino County Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe told commissioners Wednesday they could trust local politicians to get it right: “We all want to see the tree not just survive, but thrive.”

In May, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance to protect the trees, leveling fines of up to $20,000 for illegally moving one of the fragile trees without permission. San Bernardino County includes the city of Joshua Tree and Joshua Tree National Park.

But an otherwise divided Fish and Game Commission was unified in saying local politicians weren’t getting the job done.

“Local authorities have failed — woefully and inadequately — to protect the Joshua tree,” Commissioner Eric Sklar said Thursday.

“Local governments are all over the board,” Commissioner Jacque Hostler-Carmesin agreed. “I think they need to have some consistency in how they protect the Joshua tree.”

The 994-page report on the Joshua tree issue prepared by staff for the commission contains evidence cited by both sides during the meeting. Although staff ultimately recommended against listing the trees as threatened, three of the five outside peer reviewers who were asked to review the recommendation by the department disagreed with its conclusion.

The federal government declined to list the western Joshua tree as a protected species in 2019.

“The question is not whether climate change will be bad for the western Joshua tree. It’s just how bad it will be, and how fast. And the answer is, we don’t know,” Jeb Bjerke, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife plant biologist, said Wednesday.

Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham said he didn’t sleep much Wednesday night, thinking about everything the public speakers had said.

“The reality is this is a close call,” he said Thursday. “This is one of our most iconic species. I don’t think our existing law is sufficient.”

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