A 2.5 million-year-old tree may become the first plant species to win protection by law under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to protect Joshua trees in California, because research has indicated that its current habitat is becoming increasingly less viable due to a climate crisis-related threat.

Native to the Mojave Desert, the twisted, spiky Joshua tree is actually a succulent called Yucca brevifolia, and it takes many different forms. Some trees are full and bushy, while others are spindly and open in shape. They are an important part of the Mojave ecosystem, providing habitat for numerous birds, mammals, insects and lizards. However, research has indicated that only 0.02% of the tree’s current habitat in Joshua Tree National Park will remain viable in the future due to climate change by the end of the century.

Scenic View Of Silhouette Mountains Against Sky At Sunset
Silhouette of the setting sun shining through a tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Mate Steindl / EyeEm / Getty Images

This is because as it gets hotter, there is less reproduction in Joshua trees. Another issue is that invasive grasses have completely changed the fire regimes in the Mojave Desert, carrying fires from tree to tree. Considering these threats, the California Fish and Game Commission determined that listing the western Joshua tree as threatened or endangered under CESA may be warranted. If listed, it will no longer be legal to damage, remove or cut down any of the trees without a permit or special permission. The committee is beginning a one-year status review of the species and will make a final decision at a future meeting.

In the meantime, the tree will be protected while this review is being conducted. “This is a huge victory for these beautiful trees and their fragile desert ecosystem,” says Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”

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