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Southwestern Icon Threatened by Climate Change
Washington, DC— Today, WildEarth Guardians petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to list the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Multiple climate models predict severe range contractions in the next century for this iconic southwestern species. The trees will have difficulty moving to more hospitable habitat because they reproduce and disperse so slowly.
“Joshua trees are an irreplaceable part of the Southwest and we must protect them,” said Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Because Joshua trees grow so slowly, they cannot quickly adjust to our changing climate and will need safeguards to ensure they are here for future generations.”
The Southwest is a climate change “hotspot” and is already feeling the effects, with higher temperatures, longer droughts, and larger and more frequent fires. Taken together, these climate change impacts could spell disaster for Joshua trees. The trees need wet intervals to successfully reproduce and cold periods to thrive, and may take decades to recover from fires. The majority of climate models predict serious range contractions for Joshua trees; up to 90 percent of Joshua tree habitat may vanish by 2100.
“It’s already difficult to be a Joshua tree, since many factors need to come together in just the right way for them to reproduce,” said Jones. “We need to address climate change now if we want to see Joshua trees in the future.”
The petition triggers a 90-day deadline by which time the Service must make an initial finding on whether the imperiled species warrants protections.
Protection under the ESA is an effective safety net for imperiled species: more than 99 percent of plants and animals protected by the law exist today. The law is especially important as a defense against the current extinction crisis; species are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities. Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct by 2006 if not for ESA protections.