Joshua Tree National Park is using camels to help save the famous Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is using camels to help save the famous Joshua Tree

In the summer of 2020, the Doom Fire ripped through the Mojave National Preserve in southeastern California, killing more than 1.3 million Joshua trees.

Three years later, in 2023, which will become the hottest year on Earth since records began to be kept, the 93,078-acre York Fire more than doubled the area of ​​the Dome Fire, burning large forests of eastern species from the wilderness. Armed yucca. Going into these burn scars is surreal. The majority of the trees stand like tombstones, their trunks white.

View of the Dome fire scar with the surviving Joshua tree in the foreground.
Miles W. Griffis for Vox

Such deadly fires, combined with increasing drought and warming caused by climate change, have made the fate of both eastern and western species of the iconic Joshua tree vulnerable.

While some Joshua trees formed naturally in the ashes of these fires, their modern dispersers, seed-storing rodents, only travel a short distance from their burrows, making it difficult for yuccas to migrate across massive burn scars and re-establish themselves. In short, Joshua trees are disappearing faster than the shoots can take root.

In the absence of megafauna like the giant ground sloths that some scientists hypothesize served as seed dispersers for Joshua trees more than 12,000 years ago, human volunteers organized by the National Park Service have taken matters into their own hands by planting shoots of the beloved yucca plant across the landscape.

In the years the rehabilitation project began, Park Service volunteers and rangers planted thousands of Joshua tree shoots in the Dome fire scar. On some volunteer planting days in 2021 and 2023, they received help from a distant cousin of a potential ancient seed distributor: the camel.

“Chico puts the drama in the dromedary,said the camel’s owner, Jennifer Lajosker, growling loudly, baring his sticky tongue as volunteers loaded jugs of water onto his frame on a warm day in late 2023. Lajosker was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, baggy pants, and a green volunteer T-shirt. She told me that Chico is a humped camel, recognizable by his single hump. His companion, Sully, is a strikingly handsome but aloof Bactrian camel (two humps), while the hardworking Herbie is a mix of both species.

Chico, Sully and Herbie helped volunteers by hauling water, heavy Joshua tree shoots and other supplies to remote locations in the burn scar.

Volunteers load Joshua tree buds into cloth bags that are carried by three camels shortly thereafter.
Aaron Roby for Fox

A camel carrying a saddle stands in the Mojave Desert.

Herbie stands back as volunteers introduce new Joshua trees into the original landscape.
Aaron Roby for Fox

Lajosker explained that camels are well adapted to carrying heavy loads and walking long distances because their feet are giant platforms that distribute their weight evenly on the ground, making them more efficient and less impactful in desert environments than horses or mules.

But their presence in the Mojave National Park—in all their resilient clumsiness—is significant: It goes back not only to the use of camels as surveyors of historic roads throughout the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s, but also to their long presence—distant relatives, Camelops hesternus, or “camel Yesterday,” who once lived in what is now Mojave.

These modern camels don’t eat the fruits of the Joshua tree and distribute the puck-shaped seeds as camels of yesteryear were supposed to do, but using them to carry the buds and water of the Joshua tree offers an echo of the past and an interesting solution to today’s problems. The challenge of saving a tree that is particularly vulnerable to disappearing in a changing climate: What if we restored large mammals, able to spread seeds farther and faster, to ecosystems that need them?

A person leads a chain of three saddle-bearing camels along a dirt road in the Mojave Desert.

A volunteer drives Herbie, Sully, and Chico before crew members unload the Joshua tree buds.
Aaron Roby for Fox

All modern camels share a common ancestor, Paracamelus, Which diverged from yesterday’s camel millions of years ago and crossed the land bridge into Eurasia – eventually sharing a common landscape with the Joshua tree. Camelops disappeared during the megafaunal extinction at the end of the Ice Age along with the giant ground sloth, marking the demise of what would have been the megafaunal seed disperser of trees. However, the evidence for this is not complete, and some scientists say that the spread of Joshua tree seeds has long depended on rodents.

Lajosker was inspired to help plant trees with her camels after joining a camel ride in 2021 led by her friend Nance Fite, who once owned the “top-rated camel in the world” after he was hired as a deputy as part of the Los Angeles Police Department. . Their journey followed a portion of the historic Mojave Trail that bisects the Mojave National Park, and was traveled by surveyors riding camels brought in from Mediterranean ports during the “evil” American Camel Corps experiment in the 1850s.

“Much of Route 66 was surveyed using camels,” Fite said, detailing her multi-day camel trips on the historic route originally made and navigated by the ancestors of the Mojave people. Once she heard about the planting efforts at the reserve, Fate suggested that she and Lagusker volunteer with the camels to help with the first restoration efforts at the Doom Fire burn scar. “We wanted to do everything we could to help after the fire,” Vitti said.

Nearly year-old Joshua tree seedlings are tucked into cloth bags, visible from above as spiky green shoots in squares of dark soil. Thousands were planted inside the Burning Scar Dome of Fire.
Aaron Roby for Fox

In the coming years, Lajosker hopes to work closely with the NPS to organize a long camel train, up to 12 in number, if they are invited back to participate in future volunteer efforts. This will make planting and irrigation operations more efficient in the future, as some sites are many miles from roads and each requires at least 5 gallons of water. Fite said they are also open to helping private landowners affected by the York Fire. They both believe that using camels could be a powerful solution to restoring Joshua tree forests after wildfires.

Brendan Cummings, director of conservation at the Center for Biological Diversity, has been involved in the reserve’s planting efforts several times, even joining camels in 2021. He said it has great potential to be able to scale restoration efforts in remote areas. Especially since the Mojave is getting hotter and drier, which means the sprouts will need more water to survive. The NPS said last August that 80 percent of trees planted between 2021 and 2022 died. Saving Joshua trees will require a lot of groundwork and money in these harsher conditions, Cummings said. Anything that can be used to enhance efforts should be implemented.

A two-humped camel stands next to his truck and trailer.

Sully enjoys the early morning blue sky, waiting for the work day.
Miles W. Griffis for Vox

Head and neck of a camel wearing a halter and lead rope, with the Mojave Desert in the background.

Sulli shows puffs of hair on his head and neck as he poses for the camera with what appears to be a smile.
Miles W. Griffis for Vox

“Even if it’s just a small part, the camel adds a certain touch to the event adding a combination of silliness as well as practicality, which pretty much sums up what the camel is,” Cummings said.

At the end of a long day at the reserve late last year, three camels walked in an elegant, efficient line, their long shadows stretching across the burn scar. With 24 new Joshua Tree buds planted and watered at the Cima Dome, they returned to the cultivation headquarters with light loads. They put one padded foot in front of the other, past blazing yucca trees and invasive grasses lit golden at sunset.

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