Emergency Federal Protections Sought for Imperiled Joshua Tree

Joshua Trees, Mojave Desert. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

WildEarth Guardians files Endangered Species Act petitions for iconic climate-threatened desert plant

Washington, DC –WildEarth Guardians has submitted emergency petitions (here and here) to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to immediately provide federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for both the eastern and western species of Joshua tree, icons of California’s Mojave Desert.

Guardians submitted these petitions to list the Joshua tree on an emergency basis under the ESA, while simultaneously challenging the Service’s 2019 decision under the Trump administration to deny Joshua trees protected status as a “threatened” species in federal court—a listing decision that was prompted by a previous petition submitted by Guardians in 2015.

Guardians’ emergency petitions were submitted in advance of what is expected to be yet another severe fire season in Southern California. Last summer, the Mojave Desert reached a record-breaking 130 degrees while enormous wildfires like the Dome Fire also decimated thousands of acres of Joshua tree habitat, destroying an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees.

Joshua trees have existed for over 2.5 million years, but multiple published, peer-reviewed climate models show that climate change will eliminate this beloved plant from the vast majority of its current range, including its namesake National Park, by century’s end without robust efforts to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and address threats from invasive grass-fueled wildfires.

“Over the past six years, more and more climate studies have come out validating the position raised by Guardians in its 2015 petition—that a significant amount of the Joshua tree’s current habitat will be rendered ‘climatically unsuitable’ within the next 30 to 70 years without human intervention and a government-driven change of course,” said Jennifer Schwartz, staff attorney at WildEarth Guardians. “Under the Trump administration, the Service irrationally dismissed the best available science. But we’re hopeful that either a court victory or these emergency petitions will force the agency under new leadership to do the right thing and grant Joshua trees the federal ESA protections they deserve.”

In addition to an abundance of new climate studies, the petitions point to a major change since the filing of the 2015 petition. In September 2020, the California Fish & Game Commission (CFGC) unanimous vote to grant western Joshua trees (the species found almost exclusively in California) candidate status under California’s version of the ESA, the California Endangered Species Act or (CESA). This decision was based, in part, on the best-available science confirming that increasingly frequent, higher intensity fires have resulted in significant, widespread mortality of Joshua trees and this trend is projected to continue into the future.

“The California Fish & Game Commission took a pivotal step in protecting western Joshua trees by granting them candidate status under the California Endangered Species Act, and now we need bold action by the Service to ensure permanent, federal protections for both species,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians. “Guardians is optimistic that the Biden administration’s historic recognition of climate science and affirmative policy actions to fight against catastrophic climate change will carry over into protections for climate-vulnerable species like the Joshua tree.”

While the Endangered Species Act is America’s most effective law for protecting imperiled plants and wildlife in danger of extinction, the Trump administration promulgated a series of regulatory changes that seek to weaken protections for critically imperiled species, for instance by precluding their listing based on threats from climate change and limiting the designation of critical habitat. Guardians, and a coalition of conservation groups, are seeking to reverse these changes through multiple lawsuits and consistent pressure on the Biden administration.

“Guardians is committed to the steadfast defense of the ESA and the species that rely upon it for their very survival,” said Larris. “After the end of the worst administration for biodiversity conservation in history, we believe that, under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland, there is opportunity for the Service to create a viable future for the Joshua tree and countless other dwindling species.”

Since the ESA’s enactment, 99 percent of listed species have avoided extinction, and hundreds more have been set on a path to recovery. According to a recent United Nations report, over a million species are currently at risk of extinction. Researchers estimate that, if not for ESA protections, 227 species would have gone extinct by 2006.

CONTACTS.

Jennifer Schwartz, WildEarth Guardians, (503) 780-8281, jschwartz@wildearthguardians.org

Lindsay Larris, WildEarth Guardians, (310) 923-1465, llarris@wildearthguardians.org

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