In 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a petition from WildEarth Guardians to list the desert trees as threatened under the landmark 1972 conservation law. The agency said at the time that it analyzed a number of potential impacts, including drought, wildfire and climate change, and found that neither of the two species of Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia or Yucca jaegeriana, warranted federal protection.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright, an appointee of President George W. Bush, slammed the federal agency in his Wednesday opinion and sided with WildEarth Guardians, which argued that the federal agency disregarded science showing the myriad ways in which climate impacts threaten the trees’ long-term survival.
“The Service’s climate change conclusions are arbitrary and capricious because the Service disregarded material data and failed to explain why,” Wright wrote. “The Service’s findings regarding threats posed by climate change and wildfire are unsupported, speculative, or irrational.”
The ruling stems from a lawsuit that WildEarth Guardians, a New Mexico-based environmental group, filed in 2019 challenging the Trump administration’s decision.
Jennifer Schwartz, a staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians, called the ruling “a monumental step forward” for not only the Joshua tree but also for all climate-imperiled species.
“The Court’s unequivocal holding — that the Service cannot summarily dismiss scientific evidence that runs counter to its conclusions — will force the federal government to confront the reality of climate change and begin focusing on how to help species adapt,” she said in a statement.
The ruling directs FWS to reconsider listing the Joshua tree using best-available science and issue a new finding within one year. The Biden administration has so far defended the Trump-era decision in court.
FWS did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Wednesday.
The Trump administration spent four years at war with climate science. It downplayed and dismissed the global threat in its quest to boost fossil fuel production. It shut down panels on climate science, worked to limit the types of studies that can be used in drafting policy, and even altered and scrubbed scientific data on the environmental impacts of natural resource extraction. President Donald Trump’s Interior Department, which was led by a number of officials who detested the Endangered Species Act, not only used flawed or incomplete data to strip away or deny species protections but also weakened the law amid a worsening extinction crisis.
The Biden administration has since moved to reverse Trump’s rollbacks to the ESA.
The slow-growing Joshua tree is native to the U.S. Southwest, including the Mojave Desert. They are the namesake of Joshua Tree National Park.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated that Joshua trees are native to the Southeast.