In summary

The state Fish and Game Commission should list western Joshua trees under the California Endangered Species Act, safeguarding the trees and offering proof of California’s commitment to fighting climate change.

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By Brendan Cummings, Special to CalMatters

Brendan Cummings is the conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Our state is widely viewed as a climate leader, but California never has protected a single plant or animal under its endangered species law because of the threat of climate change.

That could change on June 15, when the state’s Fish and Game Commission is scheduled to decide whether to list western Joshua trees under the California Endangered Species Act.

Commissioners could decide to safeguard Joshua trees, offering proof of California’s commitment to fighting climate change and ensuring that the iconic plant survives for future generations.

Or they could follow the wishful thinking of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which in March discounted the objections of independent scientific peer reviewers to recommend against protecting Joshua trees.

From my San Bernardino home in Joshua Tree, I’ve watched the slow-motion extinction of these sentinels of the high desert as they are killed off by climate change, development and wildfire. These are problems for many species, but the Joshua tree is particularly vulnerable. 

Reproduction and growth for these trees isn’t easy. They only flower in certain years, then need to be pollinated by their symbiotic yucca moth. The tree’s seeds need to be dispersed by rodents, without all of them being eaten. Those seeds lucky enough to sprout then must escape hungry jack rabbits and survive desiccating summers until they are robust enough to withstand the Mojave Desert’s demanding conditions.

And that was before climate change started making life so much harder.

In 2019, I petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to protect western Joshua trees under the state’s Endangered Species Act. Nearly two decades earlier, I led the legal effort at the Center for Biological Diversity that forced the Bush administration to list polar bears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act due to climate change.

If the Bush administration could recognize climate change and take steps to protect vulnerable species, surely California can, too.

Sadly, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recent report on western Joshua trees isn’t what you would expect from a California agency in 2022.

It downplays the grave risks to these trees and ignores the science, inaccurately claiming there’s no proven link between rising temperatures and Joshua tree declines and theorizing that “any changes in the range of western Joshua tree that are ultimately caused by climate change will likely occur very slowly, perhaps over thousands of years.”

This reflects a profound misunderstanding of climate change and how quickly its effects are being felt. We don’t have a thousand years to protect Joshua trees. Summer temperatures are rising so quickly that they will likely doom any new trees within two or three decades. 

The department’s report fails to account for exhaustive studies documenting the severe and accelerating harms of climate change. It ignores the fact that western Joshua trees in California are struggling through the worst drought in more than a millennium, and that such droughts could become the norm.

The report minimizes the risk of fire, ignoring scientific warnings about irreversible effects and instead declaring that harm to Joshua tree habitat from fire is “temporary.”

Fueled by invasive grasses, more area burned in the Mojave Desert in 2005 than in the 25 previous years combined, and in 2020, thousands of acres of Joshua trees were lost to fire in the Mojave. 

To make matters worse, the higher-elevation areas where Joshua trees are most likely to survive warming temperatures also are the most vulnerable to fire.

While the department’s report is flawed, the good news is that the Fish and Game commissioners don’t have to follow it. 

Their vote is crucial to the survival of western Joshua trees, and it’s a litmus test for how seriously California is taking climate change.


Read an opposing viewpoint on this topic here.

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