SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California won't be listing the iconic western Joshua tree as a threatened species for now after the four-member Fish and Game Commission couldn't reach agreement on how best to protect the plant from climate change.
After deadlocking on whether to list the species under the California Endangered Species Act, commissioners decided to reconsider in October. In the meantime, they voted to pursue more feedback from tribes and directed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to work on a conservation plan for the species.
The desert plant is known for its unique appearance, with spiky leaves on the end of its branches, is found in the national park that bears its name about 130 miles (209 kilometers) east of Los Angeles and through a stretch of desert up to Death Valley National Park. There are two types of trees, the eastern and western, but only the western is up for consideration.
If the tree is listed as a threatened species, killing one would require special approval from the state. That would make it harder to win approval for housing, solar fields or other development projects on land where Joshua trees are abundant. The trees are now under conditional protection while the state decides whether to deem them threatened, though some solar development projects have still been cleared to move forward.
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The center petitioned in 2019 to have the western Joshua tree listed as threatened, saying hotter temperatures and more intense periods of drought fueled by climate change will make it harder for the species to survive through the end of the century. It also argued wildfires and development threats harm the trees’ ability to live and reproduce.
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife said that areas suitable for the western Joshua trees growth are likely to decline due to climate change by 2100. But it said in an April report that the tree remained “abundant and widespread,” which lowers the risk of extinction. Staff recommended against listing the species.
The commissioners broadly agreed that hotter temperatures and more extreme droughts fueled by climate change will put the species in danger over the coming decades. But they were split on whether the Endangered Species Act was the best way to address those concerns. The state has never listed a species as threatened based primarily on threats from climate change, said Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Commissioner Erik Sklar said the act, which is designed roughly 50 years ago, may not be the best tool to deal with the effects of climate change.
“Listing in no way ensures survival,” Sklar said. “Protecting one species at a time the way we’ve been doing it feels like we’re fiddling while Rome burns.”
He pushed for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to work on a conservation plan. He further said the Legislature and governor should bring together everyone with a stake in the trees' future, including environmentalists, tribes and developers, together to come up with a plan for protecting the species.
But Commission President Samantha Murray said listing the species would not completely end development of housing or renewable energy projects. She voted to list the species as threatened now, as did Vice President Erika Zavaleta.
“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,” Murray said.
It's unknown how many Joshua trees exist in the state, but it could be anywhere from 4.8 million to 9.8 million, said Jeb McKay Bjerke, of the Department of Fish & Wildlife.
About 40% of the Joshua trees in the state are on private land. The commission hear from hundreds of public commenters on Wednesday. Some local and state politicians and union workers said listing the species as threatened would make it harder to move forward with necessary projects, including those that aim to fight climate change by boosting renewable energy.
California has set a requirement that 100% of its electricity be produced from non-carbon sources by 2045.
San Bernardino County, which includes Joshua Tree National Park, recently increased the penalties for illegally removing Joshua trees — a $20,000 fine and six months in jail on the third offense. The county is a prime location for solar development.
But numerous other speakers argued the state has no time to waste in listing the species as threatened as the state faces warmer temperatures and more extreme droughts and fires, all of which can hurt the trees. Kelly Herbinson, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said Joshua trees are a “keystone" species of the desert, with other species reliant on its survival.
“Climate change is a threat we haven’t had to deal with yet and I get that we’re struggling to figure out the best path forward, but it’s happening and it’s happening now," she told the commission.
In 2019, the federal government declined to list the tree as a protected species.