Camels are Restoring California’s Mojave’s Joshua Trees After Wildfires

Herbie, Sully and Chico are aiding in the replanting of tree seedlings.

Camels are Restoring California’s Mojave’s Joshua Trees After Wildfires | Herbie, Sully and Chico are aiding in the replanting of tree seedlings.

Joshua trees are native to the Southwest US. In fact, the world’s largest Joshua tree forest is located in the Mojave National Preserve in California. The tree was given its unique name by a group of Mormons traveling through the desert in the mid 19th century because it reminded them of a biblical story.

In the summer of 2020, a wildfire that was sparked by lightning, tore through 43,000 acres of Cima Dome in the preserve and destroyed 1.3 million Joshua trees; that’s about a quarter of the trees, reported California City News. Repairing the forest would not be easy. But scientists came up with a unique solution, they would use camels to help restore the unique desert trees.

Why is the restoration so difficult?
During the ice age, giant sloths used to feed on the trees and this helped spread the seeds. But these sloths are extinct and now small rodents that are not nearly as effective have taken up the role.

“Joshua tree seeds don't spread very quickly,” Debra Hughson, deputy superintendent at the Mojave National Preserve told LAist. “They don't move very fast or they don't move very far with just small mammals around.”

This is coupled by the fact that out of 1,000 Joshua tree seeds, only three or four of them actually sprout, according to LAist. The fact that the trees grow three inches a year or less, make restoration even more difficult.

Still, against the odds, the plan was to restore the Cima Dome area first because its higher elevation allows the trees to survive the effects of climate change according to Hughson. She and her professional and volunteer team began to plant seedlings in the burned area.

“What we thought we would do is try to plant Joshua trees in a more spaced-out pattern so that it would accelerate the recovery of the entire area because you would have distributed seed sources. That was generally the idea,” Hughson said.

But what worked in theory didn’t really pan out. The area is a wilderness and even the hike to it took several hours. That’s where Herbie, Sully and Chico, three camels came to the rescue.

Introducing Herbie, Sully and Chico
The trio of camels from Sylmar have been helping in the restoration process since 2021, according to California City News. The camels help to carry water and the seedlings on the long trips through the desert preserve.

The idea of using camels came from Nance Fite, a 70-year-old volunteer at the Preserve. When she heard about the restoration project, she convinced the park service to let the camels help, according to LAist. She recruited her friend Jennifer Lagusker who owns the camels to bring them to  the park.

All three camels have different personalities and different jobs. Herbie leads the pack. “He is my biggest one, my smartest one. He is my go-to when it comes to doing projects we've never done before, like this project,” Lagusker told LAis.

The next is Sully who doesn’t like to be in the front of the line and last but not least is Chico who is the smallest of the camels. “He's very vocal. He has an opinion for everything. When it comes to the three of them, he's the one that tells the others what to do,” she said.

In a few months, the camels will take up their important work again but 2024 will be the last year for the restoration work at the Cima Dome. Around 3,500 young Joshua trees were planted since 2021 but the survival rate is only around 20 percent, according to Hughson.

“Our goal is to protect natural systems and natural ecosystems — all the plants, all the animals, but then some animals and some plants wind up being just a little bit more 'charismatic' than other ones,” she said.

After this work is finished, the park service will focus on a different area that was scorched by the wildfire. The camels will be ready to help-out wherever they are needed.

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