Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Congress had the wisdom to designate Joshua Tree as a national park, one part of the California Desert Protection Act. The designation elevated these magical lands to one of the highest levels of protection possible for our nation’s public lands.
A quarter century ago I also joined the staff of WildEarth Guardians, and swore to protect, defend and restore the public lands that are central to the identity of the American West.
Anniversaries like these should be a time to celebrate the past; instead I’m worrying about the future. In the case of Joshua trees I worry because not even a national park designation is sufficient to protect them.
That’s because the climate crisis is warming our planet so fast that species, including Joshua trees, will not have the time to adapt. In fact, scientists from the UC-Riverside found that even under the best case scenario — meaning with aggressive action to reduce greenhouse emissions — only one in five Joshua trees will survive the next 50 years.
That’s a bleak scenario, one that WildEarth Guardians is doing everything in our power to prevent. It’s a Guardian’s duty to stand up to the government when the government isn’t doing its job. The Guardian’s charge is now ever more critical under an Administration that continue to disavow and deny the biodiversity and climate crises before us.
On Nov. 4, WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit challenging a Trump administration decision to ignore the science when it denied Endangered Species Act safeguards for the Joshua tree.
When the very icons and namesakes that define our national parks can no longer survive, we have a problem that should alarm every citizen of our great nation. Sadly, that is the reality we’re facing not only with the Joshua tree, but also with the disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park and the declining Saguaros of Saguaro National Park.
Instead or working to remedy these problems the Trump administration is only making them worse. Whether through issuing oil and gas leases to allow fracking on millions of acres of public lands, attacking public participation in decisions affecting our national forests or recently eviscerating the Endangered Species Act this administration is undoing environmental safeguards at an unprecedented pace.
While the blueprint for destruction is being clearly deployed there’s also a countervailing restorative blueprint for our lands, wildlife and our democracy that invokes the power of the public voice. That blueprint keeps me hopeful during these dark times.
After all, there’s a long history of inspired citizens and a caring government protecting species and lands, including the Joshua tree. Marshaling science and engaging in legal action will no doubt extend the Joshua tree a lifeline, but these acts alone can’t save it.
The Joshua tree was named for its distinct, ascending branches that reminded early Mormon settlers of the Biblical figure Joshua, reaching his hands up to the sky in prayer. My prayer today is that the Joshua trees’ millions of fans — its famous musicians, poets, writers, and mystics among them — will speak out and refuse to allow the loss of such a beloved and irreplaceable figure of the natural world.
If they do so we can not only save the Joshua tree as an American treasure, but we can also reclaim and restore our democracy.
On October 19, 2019, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, represented by Western Environmental Law Center, notified Burlington Northern Railway Company of our intent to sue the business for its role in the deaths of numerous grizzly bears along its railways in Montana, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). This year alone, trains have killed at least eight grizzlies in Montana, including four grizzly cubs, two cubs within just the past two weeks, making 2019 the deadliest year on record for grizzly bear deaths by train.
Grizzly bears in the contiguous US have been listed as “threatened” under the ESA since 1975, making it illegal to “take” them pursuant to Section 9 of the ESA. This provision – which applies to all species listed for protection under the ESA, or at least it applied before the Trump administration gutted the ESA in September 2019 – means that it is unlawful for any person, including government officials and business entities, to harass, harm, or kill any listed species. Despite this provision, Burlington Northern’s railroad across the northern part of Montana has killed or contributed to the deaths of at least 52 grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (one of six grizzly ecosystems in the contiguous US) from 1980 to 2018.
Under the ESA, when a company’s activities may result in the killing of threatened or endangered species, it must apply for an “incidental take permit,” with Fish and Wildlife Services. This provision of the ESA requires that companies design, implement and secure funding for a habitat conservation plan, a plan that proposes solutions to mitigate the harm caused by its activities. Burlington Northern could take a variety of mitigating steps to prevent the deaths of grizzlies on railroads, such as scheduling trains outside of dawn and dusk hours, when grizzlies are more likely to be searching for food, ensuring that attractants – like carcasses– are promptly removed from the vicinity of train tracks, and creating wildlife crossings for grizzlies. For more than fifteen years, Burlington Northern has been aware of the problem and has failed to complete a habitat conservation plan or obtain an incidental take permit. And in the meantime, trains continue to kill protected grizzly bears, in the area surrounding Glacier National Park.
WildEarth Guardians and its partners are prepared to end this needless slaughter of grizzlies by ensuring that Burlington Northern complies with the ESA. The company is now on notice of our intent to sue unless it takes action to protect grizzly bears within the next 60 days.
Late on Friday, October 26, a federal court in Montana ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately protect imperiled Canada lynx from the impacts of trapping in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The Service must now take a hard look at imposing conditions that truly prevent lynx from trapping.
The Service regulates the export of pelts and other animal parts from bobcats and other “furbearers” in the U.S. using a permit and tagging system—in conjunction with states, Tribes, and individual trappers—through an international treaty (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, or “CITES”). These pelts and animal parts are used in places including Russia and China for products like fur coats, which can require 50 bobcat pelts each. But the effects of this export program aren’t limited to bobcats: lynx are commonly caught in traps set for bobcats.
The Service issued a statement that specified how its export program affected lynx, as well as measures that would minimize its impact and how the Service would implement those measures. But the Service’s activities did not comply with this statement, a violation of the Endangered Species Act. The court’s message to the Service is loud and clear: the Service must take a more active role in preventing Canada lynx from being killed by trappers.
Read the press release.