The vegetation community of the San Joaquin Valley of California has been formally classified as a perennial grassland based largely on assumptions of past climax state. However, historical records suggest that the region might be more accurately classified as a desert. The distinction is important in determining the appropriate management strategies for this ecosystem, particularly for the many rare and endemic taxa that reside there. Abiotic and biotic factors—including low precipitation, arid soils, and desert-adapted plants and vertebrate—are consistent with conditions typical of desert areas. We examined the distributions of these factors to define the extent of the San Joaquin Desert. We conclude that the San Joaquin Desert historically encompassed 28,493 km2 including the western and southern two thirds of the San Joaquin Valley, and the Carrizo Plain and Cuyama Valley to the southwest. However, this ecosystem has been reduced by up to 59% from agricultural, industrial, and urban activities. The conservation of the unique biodiversity of this region is dependent upon this ecosystem being appropriately managed as a desert and not as a perennial or annual grassland.
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