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Wildlife commissioners deadlock on granting threatened species status to Joshua trees

Joshua trees are illuminated beneath a starry sky.
A view of the Milky Way arching over Joshua trees and rocks at a park campground in Joshua Tree National Park.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

After eight hours of tense debate, the California Fish and Game Commission on Thursday deadlocked 2 to 2 on whether to declare the western Joshua tree a threatened species, forcing continuation of discussions of the volatile issue until November.

Staff biologists had already recommended against listing the species after concluding that claims in a petition filed by environmentalists about the effects climate change will have on the living symbols of Southern California desert were premature.

They questioned the reliability of computer models suggesting the species is in decline throughout its range. They said that’s because although there has been a decline in the western Joshua tree population in certain portions of its historical range, in other areas the species numbers in the millions.

State biologists recommend against listing the western Joshua tree as endangered due to climate change, saying the move would be premature.

But the petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has sharply divided the commissioners, two of whom resisted the staffers’ recommendation and sided instead with conservationists who fear that, absent special state protections, the species could lose 90% of its range by 2100.

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Among the dissenters was Samantha Murray, president of the commission, who worries that the western Joshua tree “may already be in significant decline or functionally extinct in some southern portions of its historic range.”

“So, for me, there’s not that much uncertainty about the future of western Joshua trees,” she said.

Unable to move forward on the matter, the panel voted unanimously to reopen the discussion at its meeting in November, leaving temporary protections offered candidates for listing in place until definitive action is taken.

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It also asked Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, to prepare a report on the viability of developing a range-wide conservation plan for the species, which would include input from stakeholders including conservationists, lawmakers, tribal leaders, property owners, renewable energy companies, labor organizations and the construction industry.

But critics saw the panel’s inability to act on the petition filed more than a year and a half ago as a failure of the state environmental law process.

“It’s immensely disappointing when, time after time, top California officials talk about being leaders when it comes to climate change,” said Brendan Cummings, conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity and co-author of the petition, “but when tasked with making a decision that would help address the problem, they flinch. That behavior is what created the climate crisis we’re grappling with today.”

Voting against listing the species would leave its fate up to local jurisdictions across thousands of acres of desert real estate.

While some of the promises made during the previous drought have been kept, conservation efforts are slipping as well-drilling threatens groundwater.

Nearly half of the western Joshua tree’s range is on private land that includes the rapidly growing communities of Palmdale, Lancaster, Hesperia, Victorville and Yucca Valley.

Many residents and policymakers in those communities describe the petition as overreach because the species scientists know as Yucca brevifolia is already protected in many city and county native plant ordinances, and within 800,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park. Listing the species, they added, would hamper job creation and development.

Cummings says that opponents miss the point. “We are likely witnessing a large-scale mortality event right now,” he said. “Yet, the department describes the situation as relatively minor.”

The western Joshua tree is one of two genetically distinct species that occur in California. It has a boomerang-shaped range that extends westward from Joshua Tree National Park to the northern slopes of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, then northward along the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada and then eastward to the edges of Death Valley National Park.

The eastern Joshua tree’s range in California is centered in Mojave National Preserve and eastward into Nevada. As many as 1 million eastern Joshua trees were incinerated by the 2020 Dome fire in the preserve.

The fate of the western species, which reaches about 40 feet in height and lives about 200 years, is most in doubt.

The tree’s blossoms, roots, inner chambers and angular boughs sustain a great abundance and diversity of desert life: yucca moths, bobcats, desert night lizards, kangaroo rats and 20 species of birds, including Scott’s orioles, ladder-backed woodpeckers and great horned owls.

But drought, hotter, drier summers, brush fires and development are taking a heavy toll on the trees and the species they support. Some stands have not reproduced baby trees in decades.

The low reproductive rate of the western Joshua tree may prevent it from expanding quickly enough into cooler and wetter habitat, scientists say. The tree’s capacity for movement is about a few hundred yards a generation.

In a separate matter, the commissioners agreed to make the Temblor legless lizard a candidate for listing as an endangered species — a move that provided the sand-swimming reptile legal protection for at least one year.

Spills of oil and other chemical pollutants are rampant in the legless lizard’s shrinking domain in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which is overlapped by an estimated 31 oil fields. according to a petition for listing submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It warms my heart,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the center, “that these rare and fascinating lizards will be safe to burrow, hunt and breed, protected from oil drilling that’s poisoning the home it evolved in over millennia.”


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