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article imageConservation group seeks protection for western Joshua trees

By Karen Graham     Oct 15, 2019 in Environment
Joshua Tree - A conservation organization has petitioned for protection of the western Joshua tree under the California Endangered Species Act due to the effects of climate change and habitat destruction.
Brendon Cummings is the conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group. And he doesn't need to go very far to find the dying signature of Southern California’s desert landscape, according to KTLA 5 News.
Cummings can stand on his porch and see the forests of Joshua trees that haven't produced seedlings in decades. Yucca brevifolia, the Joshua tree is endemic to the Southwestern United States with populations in western Arizona, southeastern California, southern Nevada, and southwestern Utah. This range mostly coincides with the geographical reach of the Mojave Desert.
Joshua trees are bioindicators
Perhaps even more important right now is the Joshua tree's designation as a major indicator species for the desert. A bioindicator species - based on its function, reproduction, and overall status - can reveal the qualitative status of the surrounding environment. You could say the Joshua tree is like the proverbial canary in a coal mine.
Joshua Tree National Park  pictured in January 2019  is home to the greatest concentration of Joshua...
Joshua Tree National Park, pictured in January 2019, is home to the greatest concentration of Joshua trees
The presence or absence of certain plants or other vegetative life in an ecosystem can provide important clues about the health of the environment. And as Cummings has noticed, Joshua trees are not producing seedlings, probably due to a changing climate.
Joshua's are like most desert plants - their blooming depends on rainfall at the proper time. They also need a winter freeze before they bloom. Once they bloom, the flowers are pollinated by the yucca moth, which spreads pollen while laying eggs inside the flower.
The Joshua tree and the Tegeticula synthetica, Yucca moth have a very close relationship. The moth is the only animal capable of pollinating Joshua tree flowers. And that is now a problem, due to climate change. The Joshua trees normally bloom in February to late April, coinciding with when the moths emerge from the ground.
Close-up of fruits of Joshua Tree  taken in Joshua Tree National Park in February 2007.
Close-up of fruits of Joshua Tree, taken in Joshua Tree National Park in February 2007.
Perdelsky at English Wikipedia
But many of the Joshua trees have been blooming as early as November and that is bad. And it is not occurring in just one area. James W. Cornett is a desert ecologist living in Palm Springs. He wrote an article in the Desert Sun in January this year on the early blooming of the Joshua trees.
He ended the article with a very succinct statement: "Many tree populations in Joshua Tree National Park are declining because of warmer temperatures and increased frequency and severity of drought. These effects have made Joshua tree populations more vulnerable to wildfires than in the past. Now a new threat may be on the horizon: a pollinator and its host that may no longer be in perfect synchronization."
Saving the Joshua trees
The Joshua trees need protection or we will run the risk of losing them to the relentless march of climate change. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission today to protect western Joshua trees under the California Endangered Species Act.
Joshua trees damaged by fire at Walker Pass  Kern County  California. The fire started on June 1  20...
Joshua trees damaged by fire at Walker Pass, Kern County, California. The fire started on June 1, 2016 and was reported to be a human caused fire.
Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz
“The California Endangered Species Act may be the only hope for saving these iconic symbols of the Mojave Desert,” said Brendan Cummings, the Center’s conservation director, and a Joshua Tree resident.
“Joshua trees are uprooted or bulldozed on a daily basis to make way for roads, strip malls, and vacation rentals right up to the borders of our national parks. If these beautiful plants are to have any hope of surviving the difficult decades ahead, we have to stop killing them.”
Under the California Endangered Species Act, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has three months to make an initial recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission, which will then vote on the petition at a public hearing early next year. Let's hope for the best.
More about california joshua tree, Climate crisis, Endangered species, two distinct species
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