(CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that four petitioned species, including the iconic Joshua tree, may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. In a 90-day finding, the agency determined that petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the WildEarth Guardians (WEG) presented substantial evidence that the Joshua tree, Florida scrub lizard, lesser Virgin Island skink and the Lassics lupine merit a 12-month status review, the second step in the process for listing protected species under the ESA.
The CBD petitioned the agency on behalf of 52 amphibians and reptiles, including the Florida lizard, in July 2012, and petitioned on behalf of nine skink species, including the Virgin Islands skink, in 2014. The group says the Florida lizard is threatened by habitat loss due to development, agriculture, logging and mining, and the skink, also a lizard, is threatened by introduced feral cats and mongooses, development and climate change-induced sea level rise.
“Endangered Species Act protection is the best hope of saving these little lizards from the very big threats they’re facing,” CBD’s senior scientist Tierra Curry said. “The Act has a nearly perfect record of stopping animals from going extinct, and in the face of the global reptile and amphibian extinction crisis, it’s hands-down our best tool for saving these guys.”
The CBD cited a recent study that said researchers have predicted up to a 40 percent rate of extinction of lizard species by 2080 due to global warming.
The listing process for the two lizards is being handled by the Southeast Region of the USFWS, which maintains that is has an aggressive at-risk conservation program with its partners that has been responsible for keeping more than 70 species from needing ESA protection, while improving the status of a dozen more species, and recovering some, such as the Louisiana black bear.
“Conservation of diverse and rare ‘at-risk’ plants and animals can only be achieved through partnerships with federal, state, and local agencies, private organizations, businesses, universities, and landowners,” Leopoldo Miranda, Southeastern Assistant Regional Director for Ecological Services said. “We will be soliciting and studying data obtained from our research and our partners’ work to decide whether the Lesser Virgin Islands skink and the Florida scrub lizard require protection under the Endangered Species Act.”
The CBD also petitioned the agency for emergency protection for the Lassics lupine in January. Due to fires in July and August 2015, the entire population of 500 to 1,000 plants dropped to an estimated 60 surviving individuals, the group said. This rare pink lupine is found in less than four total acres on Mount Lassic and Red Lassic Mountain in Humboldt and Trinity counties in northern California.
“We are at great risk of losing the Lassics lupine to extinction so protection and recovery actions can’t some soon enough if we are to save this beautiful flower,” David Imper, former plant ecologist for the Arcata office of the Fish and Wildlife Service and leading researcher of the flower, said. “We urge the Service to grant emergency protective measures for this wildflower.” The Service said that an emergency listing was not necessary.
In September 2015, the WildEarth Guardians petitioned the agency on behalf of the Joshua tree, a giant member of the agave family that dots the desert landscape in southern California, Nevada, Arizona and the southwestern corner of Utah. The tallest tree in Joshua Tree National Park is 40 feet high. The group also asked for an emergency listing, which the agency decided was unnecessary.
Noting that climate models predict that up to 90 percent of Joshua tree habitat may disappear by 2100, the Guardians also said that Joshua trees reproduce and disperse slowly, take decades to recover from the increasing rate of wildfires and need wet periods to reproduce as well as cold periods to thrive.
“Joshua trees are an irreplaceable part of the Southwest and we are thrilled they are one step closer to receiving the protections they need,” WEG’s endangered species advocate Taylor Jones said. “Our changing climate is a threat to these magnificent trees, and they will need safeguards to ensure they are here for future generations.”
In the same 90-day petition finding, the agency determined that petitions to list the Fourche Mountain salamander, American pika, Ricord’s rock iguana and Wyoming pocket gopher, and to delist the spectacled eider and the Alaska population of Steller’s eider were not warranted, so the agency will take no further action on those petitions.
The agency requests that information on the two lizards, the alpine flower and the Joshua tree be submitted by Nov. 14, to be considered during the 12-month status review.