In ‘a Huge Victory,’ California’s Joshua Tree Becomes the First Plant Protected Due to Climate Change

Experts say that climate change will decimate the population of Joshua trees, but California is taking action

A Joshua tree stands tall in the desert in front of a blue sky
Adult Joshua trees—which can live for 150 years on average—sprouted when temperatures were about 1 degree Celsius cooler than today. Pixabay user nightowl under free for commercial use license

Joshua trees, famous for adorning the desertscapes of the southwestern United States, have existed in the Mojave Desert for 2.5 million years. Despite prevailing through many cycles of ice ages and warming periods, a study from last year suggests that at the current rate of climate change, only 0.02 percent of Joshua trees' habitat will remain by the end of the century.

Now, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition under California’s Endangered Species Act to protect Joshua trees, making it the first plant species to be protected in the state due to the threats posed by climate change, reports Vivian Ho for The Guardian.

In a historic vote, California’s Fish and Game Commission accepted the petition and placed the plant under protection for one year while they conduct research. After that period, they will vote again to decide if the protection should be made permanent, reports Dharna Noor for Gizmodo. If so, state and local agencies will develop a species recovery plan and decide the best strategy to protect the plant from climate change and industrial development. But for the next year at least, it will be illegal to damage, cut down, or remove a Joshua tree without special permits, reports NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

“This is a huge victory for these beautiful trees and their fragile desert ecosystem,” Brendan Cummings, the conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity and the author of the petition, says in a statement. “If Joshua trees are to survive the inhospitable climate we’re giving them, the first and most important thing we can do is protect their habitat. This decision will do that across most of their range.”

Conservationists are already seeing drastic changes in the population of Joshua trees, one of which is slower reproduction. The adult trees, which can live for 150 years on average, that exist currently sprouted when temperatures were about 1 degree Celsius cooler than it is today. But droughts in the southwest have left the soil too dry to support the growth of saplings, which have shallow roots that cannot reach water deep underground. But even if world leaders took drastic climate change measures now, up to 80 percent of Joshua trees will be lost by the end of the century, Cummings tells NPR.

Climate change isn’t just devastating the population of Joshua trees—it’s also transforming the landscape. In August, the Dome Fire blazed through the Mojave National Preserve and scorched more than 43,000 acres of Joshua tree habitat.

“No doubt the fire spread was assisted by the unusually dry vegetation resulting from a warming climate and frequent drought,” James Cornett, a desert ecologist, tells the Desert Sun.

The severity of the fires was exacerbated by invasive grasses; instead of one tree catching fire and burning, the grasses act as fuel and spread the blaze across the desert, which has “completely changed the fire regimes in the Mojave,” Cummings tells NPR.

“Right now, it’s a symbol of our utter failure as a society to address climate change. I’d like to think it can become a symbol of us coming together,” Cummings tells The Guardian.

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