Desert tortoise 101: History, conservation efforts; rules for safe, enjoyable encounters

Desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News

WASHINGTON COUNTY – Existing since the age of the dinosaur, desert tortoises are a fascinating and now threatened species that all must work together, even in small ways, to preserve.

Desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News

About desert tortoises

Desert tortoises are native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. Two species currently exist, the Agassiz’s and Morafka’s desert tortoises, with a possible third being researched in northern Mexico. In Utah, tortoises can only be found in Washington County.

The adult desert tortoise typically measures 10 to 14 inches long, 4 to 6 inches tall and weigh 25 to 50 pounds. Their hard shells are high-domed compared to other tortoise species and range from olive green to dark brown in color. Males are slightly larger than females, with longer tails, a more prominent throat area and a concaved lower shell.

Desert tortoises have long back legs for crawling, while their front limbs are flattened with sharp scales for digging and burrowing. Tortoises spend about 95 percent of their life underground and must have adequate shelter in order to survive as they cannot regulate their body temperature. However, they have the ability to tolerate water, salt and energy imbalances on a daily basis.

Desert tortoise in a burrow southwest of Bear Claw Poppy Trailhead, Bloomington area of St. George, Utah, May 17, 2013 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News
Desert tortoise in a burrow southwest of Bear Claw Poppy Trailhead, Bloomington area of St. George, Utah, May 17, 2013 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

Tortoises are herbivores, consuming mostly grass, herbs, wildflowers and the fruit and flowers of cacti. They occasionally ingest small rocks to aid with digestion and provide a supplementary source of minerals, including calcium. The majority of their water intake comes from moisture in plants they eat (tortoises are most active during the spring and after rains); a tortoise’s bladder can hold 40 percent of its body weight. Adult tortoises can survive a year or more without access to water.

“The desert tortoise is a unique native reptile well adapted to live in the desert,” Utah Division of Wildlife Resources wildlife biologist Ann McLuckie said.

The life cycle of the desert tortoise is lengthy and slow. The average tortoise takes about 16 years to fully mature and can live 30 to 50 years total. Adult tortoises mate in the spring and fall; the female will lay a clutch of four to eight eggs resembling ping pong balls that typically hatch three to five months later. Depending upon their climate and habitat, each female tortoise can produce up to three clutches per year. Desert tortoises have a high mortality rate, with only 2 to 5 percent of hatchlings estimated to reach maturity.

Endangered status

Desert tortoise in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Ivins, Utah, June 11, 2013 | Photo by Julie Morgan for St. George News

Ravens, gila monsters, kit foxes, badgers, roadrunners, coyotes and fire ants are all natural predators of the desert tortoise. However, they are mainly threatened by man-made dangers, including urbanization, habitat destruction, vandalism and illegal collection. These factors, coupled with the tortoise’s fragile biology and low reproductive rate, have contributed to a significant decline in population since the 1980s.

As commercial and residential development across the desert regions of the Southwest continues, threats to the desert tortoise are increasing, along with conservation efforts. The desert tortoise is currently classified as a “threatened vulnerable species” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

Southern Utah conversation efforts

The largest sanctuary for the desert tortoise in Southern Utah is the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, created in 1996 by Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan with the specific purpose of protecting the species and its habitat. Stretched across 62,000 acres, the reserve is operated by the county in coordination with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Department of Natural Resources and State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

Additionally, HCP and reserve staff conduct surveys and clearances of property identified as tortoise habitat outside the reserve that is slated for development. They remove tortoises located on that property, perform a series of tests and relocate them to land within the boundaries of the reserve. They work closely with municipalities, companies, government agencies and other entities to make this possible.

“The reserve is (a) guarantee by Washington County and its partners that tortoises and their habitat will be protected,” Red Cliffs Desert Reserve Outreach Coordinator Cornell Christensen said.

The Utah DWR manages and protects all native wildlife within the state, including the desert tortoise. In Washington County, the organization monitors tortoise populations and works with federal and local agencies, including the reserve, to protect habitat and extend conservation efforts.

A federal agency, BLM enforces the Endangered Species Act (under which the desert tortoise is covered) in Washington County and protects the species through land management decisions, project authorizations and research studies. One such action is supporting partnerships with federal, state, municipal and private entities to further the goals and objectives of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mojave Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan. Public lands managed by the BLM St. George Field Office comprise 70 percent of the property in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

“BLM focuses its desert tortoise management actions to address the threats that are believed to have caused or are causing declines in tortoise populations: Poor nutrition based on the loss of key native plant species from their habitat, disease and fire,” BLM Wildlife Biologist Timothy Croissant said. “We cooperate with biologists, firefighters and others who need to work in tortoise habitat to ensure tortoises remain as safe as possible.”

Desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News

Contact with tortoises

Despite the sensitivity of its ecosystem, the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve is an easily accessible and popular recreation area. Visitors often come into contact with desert tortoises, which can be either an enjoyable experience or an unpleasant ordeal for both tortoise and human, depending on each citizen’s conduct.

Whether traveling on foot, by horse or motorized vehicle, visitors must stay on marked routes and within specifically designated areas while on public lands. If you spot a desert tortoise within the reserve, you are allowed to observe and photograph it without disturbing its natural process. If you encounter one outside of the reserve that is in danger, such as near a road, you can move it back into the reserve.

Anyone who finds a tortoise outside of the reserve should immediately notify the Utah DWR Washington County Field Office at 435-879-8694, as tortoises can only leave reserve property two ways: By crawling through an area of the fence needing repair or being illegally moved by someone.

Replacing a tortoise behind the fence of the reserve is the only time members of the public are allowed to touch them. Contact is restricted due to the possibility of communicable diseases (from human to tortoise and vice versa) and harm, even unintentional, to the tortoise’s delicate system.

Desert tortoise on hills adjacent to Bear Claw Poppy Trailhead, Bloomington area of St. George, Utah, April 26, 2013 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

Killing, injuring or disturbing tortoises in any way is not taken lightly by law enforcement agencies. There are both civil and criminal penalties for citizens who violate federal, state or local laws concerning the desert tortoise. Federal and state punishments can exceed fines of $25,000 per violation and one year imprisonment for blatant violation of the laws. Local regulations carry lesser but still significant penalties.

However, as agencies emphasize the protection of native populations through education rather than penalization, a written warning will most likely be issued upon first offense, followed by citations for future violations. Visitors to public recreation areas with sensitive wildlife should always handle themselves and their equipment responsibly to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all involved.

“Tortoises are part of our past, present and future. They represent the natural history of our area,” McLuckie said. “If we can follow these rules, future generations will be able to take a walk in the desert and have the pleasure and joy of seeing a tortoise.”

“Tortoises are fascinating creatures that are considered to be an indicator of the health of the Mojave Desert ecosystem,” Croissant said. “The survival of this species will depend on (people) finding solutions to both small and large-scale issues. Each of us must do whatever we can to help protect these ancient reptiles, for we are living in their habitat.”


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Desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News
Desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News

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  • Murat June 23, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    If you are foraging for food in the desert areas and come across one of these tasty-looking tortoises, please refrain from consuming it. Instead, look for grasshoppers and wild edibles. Roast the tortoise only as a last resort.

  • Karen June 23, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Excellent, well-written article. Education about the rare and native species of Washington County is essential to their survival. Thank you for this article.

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