California won’t list Joshua tree as threatened species — for now

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 Thursday on how best to protect the plant from climate change.

The California Endangered Species Act was deadlocked, and the commissioners decided to reconsider their decision in October. In the interim, they voted for more feedback from tribes and directed California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDC) to develop a conservation plan.

The unique desert plant, known for its unique appearance and spiky leaves at its ends, can be found in the national parks that bear its name, about 130 miles (209km) east Los Angeles. The eastern and western trees are available, but the western is the only one that can be considered.

Special approval is required from the state if the tree has been listed as a threatened or endangered species. It would be more difficult to cut down trees for development projects, such as housing or solar fields. The state will decide whether the trees should be considered threatened. However, certain solar development projects are still allowed to proceed.

In 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity requested that the western Joshua trees be listed as endangered. They claimed that the species will struggle to survive in the face of increasing temperatures and drought caused by climate change. 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. It stated in an April report that it was preserving the tree. “abundant and widespread,”This reduces the likelihood of an animal’s extinction. Staff advised against listing the species.

They all agreed that climate change will place the species at risk in the next decade. However, they disagreed on whether the Endangered Species Act was the best approach to address these concerns.

Brendan Cummings from the Center for Biological Diversity, conservation director, stated that if the Joshua trees is listed as endangered, it will be the first state to list them under the Endangered Species act. This would be primarily due to climate change.

Commissioner Erik Sklar suggested that the act, which was created 50 years ago, might not be the best tool for dealing the climate change effects.

“Listing in no way ensures survival,”Sklar claimed. “Protecting one species at a time the way we’ve been doing it feels like we’re fiddling while Rome burns.”

He called for the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) to develop 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.

Samantha Murray, the President of the Commission, said that listing the species would not stop development of housing and renewable energy projects. She voted for listing, as did Vice President Erika Zvaleta.

“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 spoke.

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.

The state has about 40% of its Joshua trees on private land. Union workers and politicians from both the state and local governments said Wednesday that listing the species as endangered would make it difficult to continue with needed projects, such as those that combat climate change through boosting renewable energy. California has imposed a 100% non-carbon requirement for its electricity by 2045.

The county of San Bernardino, where Joshua trees are grown, is also a great place for solar development. The county recently increased the penalties for illegally removing Joshua trees — a $20,000 fine and six months in jail on the third offense.

Cummings, from the Center for Biological Diversity, stated that Joshua tree growth areas are most likely to survive despite the impacts of climate change.

Joshua trees aren’t reproducing as fast now as they did in the past, and research suggests that some Joshua trees will not survive beyond the decade. A listing of the species would assist in creating plans to protect them from threats.

“The goal is not that no Joshua tree anywhere can be removed,”He stated. “The goal is that if we’re going to save Joshua trees, we need to map out and protect the areas where they’re most likely to survive.”

To avoid tie votes, the commission should have five members. However, one member resigned in February. Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t appointed a replacement.

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