The western Joshua tree will be considered for protection under the California Endangered Species Act, possibly becoming the first plant species to be given protection of law in the state because of a primarily climate crisis-related threat.
The California Fish and Game Commission voted Tuesday to accept a petition that provides the gnarly-limbed yucca plants protected status for a year while the state conducts a study. The Joshua tree – which is not a tree but is actually a succulent called Yucca brevifolia – has graced the landscape of the Mojave desert for 2.5m years.
Research has shown that amid unmitigated climate change, only .02% of the tree’s current habitat in Joshua Tree national park would remain viable. Hotter and drier conditions – like the record-high temperatures that struck the state this summer – are killing off Joshua trees, and leaving fewer young to survive. Last month, the Dome fire burned burned through more than 43,000 acres in some of the world’s densest old-growth Joshua tree forest in the Mojave national preserve.
The vote made the tree a “candidate species”, meaning that for the year that the state studies and determines whether the trees should be given a “threatened” status, as the petition asks, the trees will be protected under the law, said Melissa Miller-Henson, executive director of the California Fish and Game Commission. That means that it will no longer be legal to damage, remove or cut down a tree without a permit or special permissions.
“The intent is if a species is a candidate or protected, our goal is to protect it and in the long-term, find ways to help it recover,” Miller-Henson said.
Three years ago, another species was identified for protection under the California Endangered Species Act because of climate change – the kangaroo rat, a mid-altitude mountainous rodent, Miller-Henson said. “What they were finding was that this poor critter was having to go to different altitudes because of climate change,” she said. After the year study, however, the state determined that the rat was not at risk of becoming endangered.
Brendan Cummings, the conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the petition, told the Guardian last month that he hoped that the Joshua Tree “can be a model of doing climate adaptation planning to ensure that biodiversity of the state is protected”.
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SOURCE: The Guardian, Vivian Ho