The western Joshua tree will remain a protected species after the California Fish and Game Commission failed to come to a majority decision on Thursday on whether the iconic plant should be listed under the California Endangered Species Act.
High desert cities, construction and real estate trade groups, and renewable energy developers oppose the listing, arguing it would stymie development of housing and renewable energy. Conservation groups, scientists, and advocates, however, have argued that listing the tree is integral to protecting the species from climate change, as well as other threats like wildfire and development.
The commission considered four hours of public comments on Wednesday, and also heard presentations from the Center for Biological Diversity, which submitted the petition to list the species as threatened, and from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which issued a report recommending against listing the species in April.
Commission Vice President Erika Zavaleta and President Samantha Murray supported listing the western Joshua tree on Thursday, but commissioners Jacque Hostler-Carmesin and Eric Sklar said they want to delay the decision and encourage all involved parties to work on a range-wide conservation plan in the meantime, although both indicated they would likely support listing the species at a future date. The fifth commissioner position currently vacant.
“Based on the models and the evidence, I come to a different conclusion than the scientists at the department… This strong suite of models and ground-truthing have led me to the conclusion that we have a lot of work to do to protect the species from becoming endangered in the next 80 years mainly throughout most of the southern part of its range,” Zavaleta said.
Murray said the commission is tasked with evaluating whether a species is threatened or endangered, not with evaluating the potential economic impacts or impacts on housing and development of a listing.
“Listing doesn’t mean that there can’t be housing, that there can’t be renewable energy projects, it just means they’ll happen under a more careful watch,” she said. “Over the last 18 months (while the species had candidate status), development and projects have still been happening. It just means it will be paired with numerical caps of trees that are taken and paired with habitat conservation planning efforts.”
But Sklar said he preferred to continue the item to the commission’s October meeting, with the hopes that delaying the decision would incentivize all parties to work on a conservation plan, and prompt the legislature to pass legislation related to protections for the species.
“I think it puts pressure on all parties, those for the listing, those going against the listing, to work together to craft a really good solution,” he said. “Not listing today keeps the pressure on all the groups in a greater way.” He added that after listing a species it could take years before a conservation plan is developed.
Murray and Zavaleta said they doubted delaying the vote would in fact incentivize these actions more than listing the species as threatened would.
The discussion also raised the broader question of how to best use the California Endangered Species Act to protect species from climate change, with Sklar calling protecting individual species “like fiddling while Rome burns.” The western Joshua tree represents the first time the state law has been used to protect a species that is primarily by climate change.
A motion from Sklar to continue the item to the August meeting, and reopen the public record then for additional tribal input and ideas from the Department of Fish and Wildlife on creating a range-wide recovery and conservation plan, failed 2-2 with Murray and Zavaleta voting no. A second motion made by Zavaleta to list the species as threatened also failed 2-2, with Sklar and Hostler-Carmesin voting no, so the item will be continued to the commission’s October meeting.
As a candidate for listing, the tree temporarily receives the same protections as a state-listed endangered or threatened species. This includes a prohibition on the import, export, take (or kill), possession, purchase, or sale of the western Joshua tree, or any part or product of the tree, without proper authorization.
The commission did agree to narrowly reopen the public record to receive additional input from California tribes in response to criticism that there wasn’t sufficient engagement from tribes on the issue. The commission also voted to have the Department of Fish and Wildlife provide an update in October on efforts to protect the species, and an update on a potential range-wide conservation plan.
Climate change reducing habitat
In their presentations on Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Department of Fish and Wildlife whether similar science related to threats to the western Joshua tree, but different conclusions on or not these threats warrant listing under the California Endangered Species Act.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, led off the meeting by saying the western Joshua tree likely represents the “most complex presented to the commission” hes seen during his time as director.
The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to list the species in 2019 to protect the trees from the threats of climate change, wildfires, and development. The tree’s suitable habitat is expected to decline substantially by 2100 due to climate change, especially in the southern portions of its range — the Joshua tree would largely be unable to survive in its namesake park by the end of this century.
Outside of the park, the western Joshua tree’s habitat extends northeast through fast-growing high desert cities like Victorville, Hesperia and Palmdale. Approximately 40% of the western Joshua tree’s range is on private lands, which advocates say makes protecting the tree even more vital.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recognized that “there will be a substantial reduction in areas with suitable climate conditions for western Joshua tree in the foreseeable future,” which in combination with other threats “is expected to have negative effects on the excess of western Joshua tree and is a cause of substantial concern.”
But the department recommended against listing the tree as threatened, concluding that the “currently abundant and widespread” population lessens the overall impact of these threats and the threat of extinction for the foreseeable future, which the department defined as through 2100.
‘The question is not ‘will climate change be bad for the Joshua tree?’ The question is, ‘How bad will it be? And how quickly? And the truth is we don’t know yet. is a close call, the recommendation was not easy for the department,” said Jeb Bjerke with the department’s native plant program.
Bjerke noted that only one of the five peer reviewers agreed with the recommendation.
As the western Joshua tree loses its current suitable habitat, identifying and protecting areas known as “climate refugia,” where Joshua trees may be able to thrive at higher elevations amid rising temperatures and climate change, will become even more important to the species’ survival . But Bjerke noted that western Joshua trees would be unlikely to colonize these areas on their own, and would instead require human assistance to be moved into these areas of suitable habitat.
“Available scientific evidence could support the conclusion to either list the species or not list the species, and it’s reasonable to come to different conclusions based on the same set of facts,” Bjerke said. “Our recommendation was therefore based on what we consider to be the most likely outcome at the end of this century… With widespread distribution, high abundance, and lack of negative demographic trends, the western Joshua tree is likely to continue to persist and reproduce in many areas of California.”
In the Center for Biological Diversity’s presentation, Conservation Director Brendan Cummings said he agreed with the scientific evidence in the department’s report, but disagreed with the conclusion.
Cummings noted studies in 2012 and 2019 that predicted “catastrophic” loss of suitable habitat in Joshua Tree National Park, with a 90-plus percent decline of the tree’s range in the park. Those studies were modeled on a 3-degree rise in summer maximum temperatures, an increase that state climate reports have estimated could occur as soon as 2035 or 2040.
Cummings criticized the department’s portrayal of climate change as a longer-term threat to the western Joshua tree with unknown impacts. Reading out loud one line from the department’s report that says the department expects “that any changes in the range of the western Joshua tree that are ultimately caused by climate change will likely occur very slowly, perhaps over 1,000 years,” he called it the most disappointing sentence” of the report.
“This reflects a profound misunderstanding of climate change and how fast impacts are being felt,” he said. “We don’t have 1,000 years to protect Joshua trees, summer maximum temperatures that likely preclude recruitment will be here in two or three decades under the most optimistic scenarios. The western Joshua tree clearly is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable at a minimum in a significant portion of its range. You must list it as such.”
High desert cities opposed listing
The commission received over 200 public comments during the meeting this week, including from elected officials representing the high desert, who largely commented against the listing. From the general public, comments in support of the listing were roughly double the number of commenters speaking against the listing.
Supporters of the criticized listing of the California Department Fish and Wildlife’s characterization of how climate change could impact the western Joshua tree, calling it short-sighted, and the department’s finding that the tree is “abundant and widespread.”
Some commenters pointed to other endangered or extinct species that they said were once “abundant and widespread,” from the desert tortoise to the giant sloth.
Opponents of the listing, including elected officials as representing high desert cities, real estate and construction trade groups, construction unions, and chambers of commerce, as representatives of solar energy developers, argued that existing locals are sufficient for the western Joshua tree, that the tree is currently abundant, and that the listing would stymie renewable energy and housing development.
The Fish and Game Commission also received over 1,700 written public comments regarding the potential listing ahead of the meeting, with most comments in support of the petition and just over 250 opposed.
Erin Rode covers the environment for the Desert Sun. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @RodeErin.