California authorities arrested and fined a couple $18,000 after they uprooted 36 Joshua trees and buried them inside a hole to make room for a home.

The fine was implemented as a deterrent for residents who are looking to cut down the crooked-limbed plant. Experts have emphasized the tree is an imperiled species that is being considered to be protected under the state’s endangered species act.

Endangered Tree Species

“Most California citizens who reside in Joshua tree habitat revere these iconic desert species, more so now than ever because of its degraded population status. We hope it serves as a deterrent to others who may think it is acceptable to unlawfully remove Joshua trees to make way for development,” Nathaniel Arnold, the deputy chief of the California department of fish and wildlife’s law enforcement division, said during a press release.

The destruction of the Joshua trees, which are technically not trees but a type of succulent, is being investigated by authorities since February 11. That day, a nearby resident saw his neighbors mowing down dozens of the vegetation using a tractor. The witness immediately called the department of fish and wildlife.

Before calling authorities, the neighbor allegedly reprimanded the couple before calling authorities because the species was being considered to be placed in protection as an endangered species. Officials said it was “illegal to disturb, move, replant, remove” the species.

The couple in question said they thought Joshua trees under a certain diameter were excluded from the protection act, Douglas Poston, a prosecutor in San Bernardino County, said. The suspects owned the lot and wished to build a home on the land. “But that’s not accurate, obviously. It doesn’t matter if it’s a foot tall or 29ft tall, it’s under that protection,” Poston said.

The couple had already left the scene by the time a state wildlife officer arrived at the property. However, the official said he discovered an apparently freshly dug and refilled hole. He continued to dig out the contents of the hole using a backhoe where he discovered the buried Joshua trees.

On June 7, authorities filed a 36-count misdemeanor complaint against the couple, alleging the “unlawful taking” of 36 Joshua trees. Officials noted that each tree could result in a fine of up to $4,100 and or six months of prison time, The Guardian reported.

During the investigation, the suspects, who authorities identified as Jeffrey Walter and Jonetta Nordberg-Walter, were cooperative. The San Bernardino County superior court on June 11 placed the suspects on a pre-trial diversion program. Under the agreement, the couple each has to pay $9,000 for the crime.