On March 9, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published its 12-month finding that the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia [western Joshua tree] and Yucca jaegeriana [eastern Joshua tree]) does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This conclusion comes after a second in-depth review of the two Joshua tree species. The USFWS reviewed threats to the species such as wildfire, invasive species, climate impacts, and habitat loss and fragmentation. The USFWS determined the Joshua tree’s resiliency, redundancy, and representation was sufficient to not be at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future, or through the year 2069.
Paul Souza, Regional Director of the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region said, “We are coordinating closely with partners to ensure the long-term conservation of these species, including the National Park Service and other Federal agencies, and the State of California, which is also considering measures for the protection of Joshua trees.”
Western Joshua Tree Status in California
On February 7, 2023, the California Governor’s office made public a proposed legislation that would protect the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) through a trailer bill titled Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act (WJTCA). The WJTCA aims to protect the western Joshua tree at a landscape scale, while also providing a streamlined permitting and mitigation approach using in-lieu fees. If passed, this bill would be the first legislation to specifically focus on protecting a species from threats of climate change.
On the heels of this announcement, the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission) voted on February 8, 2023, to postpone their decision on listing the western Joshua tree as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act. The decision to postpone was in direct response to the newly proposed legislation. The Commission will take into consideration the outcome of the proposed legislation, expected in July 2023, before taking a final vote on the listing status.
Key components of the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act
- Authorizes the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to permit impacts to the western Joshua tree if specific conditions are met, including impact avoidance and minimization, and creates an option for payment of a fee to mitigate for specific impacts by specific projects.
- Collected fees will be deposited into the Western Joshua Tree Mitigation Fund. CDFW is required to deploy funds in collaboration with Tribes and other stakeholders. The funds will help acquire and conserve habitat for the western Joshua tree.
- CDFW would be required to develop and implement a Western Joshua Tree Conservation Plan in collaboration with the Commission, California Native American Tribes, local governments, and the public.
- CDFW would be required to consult with California Native American Tribes in accordance with co-management principles in the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Plan. This would include relocation of western Joshua trees to tribal lands if requested and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Plan.
- CDFW can delegate authority to County or City jurisdictions to approve removal or trimming of dead or dying western Joshua trees (subject to conditions), and delegate approval to local level for public works projects (subject to conditions); provides for options for in-lieu fees. CDFW would maintain oversight and authority to revoke delegations.
- WJTCA includes data-driven milestones, creates accountability and transparency, requires reporting to the Commission on effectiveness and performance, and allows for flexibility to increase fees after review/public process if funds are insufficient.
Benefits of the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act
- Helps create options to aggregate mitigation fee dollars for landscape-level conservation of the species.
- Creates economies of scale as compared to traditional permitting approaches.
- The California Endangered Species Act does not allow for trimming or removal of dead western Joshua trees; WJTCA provides an easy mechanism to manage health and safety concerns related to western Joshua tree.
- Directly advances co-management; facilitates landscape-scale management and tribal engagement.
- Eases regulatory burden of CDFW environmental permitting.
- Helps to balance the protection of the species while allowing for renewable energy projects, housing developments, and tribal interests to advance.
What’s so special about the Western Joshua trees?
- Western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) occupies more than 4.4 million acres across California and Nevada.
- Found in the western Mojave Desert at elevations between 1,300 and 7,500 feet;
- Range is a boomerang-shape, stretching across five Southern California counties: Inyo County, eastern Kern County, western San Bernardino County, northeastern Los Angeles County, and northern Riverside County.
- Grows to 40 feet tall and can live for at least 200 years.
- Takes 30 years or more to reach reproductive maturity.
- Capable of reproducing clonally or by seed.
- Produces no nectar and depends on the yucca moth (Tegeticula synthetica) to pollinate its flowers; the yucca moth’s larvae feed on developing seeds.
- Small rodents help disperse and bury seeds, aiding the chance for sprouting a tree.
- A distinct species that is very similar in appearance to the eastern Joshua tree (Yucca jaegeriana), which is also present in California.
- Native tribes have used the western Joshua tree for food, fiber, and medicinal purposes for generations.
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