A California couple looking to build a home on a plot of land they own uprooted 36 Joshua trees to make room for it—and ended up fined $18,000 as a result. Joshua trees, which are not actually trees but succulents technically named Yucca brevifolia, are imperiled, their numbers dwindling due to extreme weather caused by climate change, fire, and damage to Joshua Tree National Park that occurred during the government shutdown that ended in January 2019. They are being considered for protection under California's endangered species act, and it is already illegal in the state to disturb, replant, or remove them, the Guardian reports. Taking a Joshua tree is punishable by up to $4,100 in fines plus six months behind bars.
A neighbor noticed the couple uprooting the plants with a tractor back in February and warned them that it was illegal, then called the Department of Fish & Wildlife to report what was going on. A state wildlife officer responded to the scene and found the trees felled, and buried in a recently dug and refilled hole on the Morongo Basin property, the Hi-Desert Star reports. A prosecutor explains that the couple, who cooperated with investigators, thought Joshua trees of a certain size could be removed, but that is not accurate. The couple was hit with one misdemeanor charge per tree. On Tuesday, they agreed to pay $9,000 in fines each. Volunteering for Joshua Tree National Park or the Mojave Desert Land Trust could lower the fines, which will ultimately be donated to the Western Joshua Tree Mitigation Fund. If they complete all the terms of their agreement, the charges will be dismissed. (Read more California stories.)