Officials report mix of live, dead tortoises in post-fire surveys; lingering fire impacts still an issue

ST. GEORGE — As wildlife officials work to ascertain the immediate impact of two summer wildfires on the Mohave desert tortoise population within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, the overall impacts may not be known for a handful of years yet.

Turkey Farm Road Fire spreads across landscape shortly after it was ignited, Washington County, Utah, July 13, 2020 | Fire photo courtesy of Deanna Buchanan, St. George News

The Turkey Farm Road and Cottonwood Trail fires that ignited in July torched a combined 14,000 acres within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and National Conservation Area.

During a Tuesday meeting of the Washington County Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee – a group of local, state and federal officials who make up the body overseeing the Habitat Conservation Plan within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve – biologists shared the results of post-fire mortality surveys for the desert tortoise.

Mike Schijf, a biologist with the advisory committee, previously stated there could have been between 500 and 800 tortoises residing in the torched portions of the reserve.

As the surveys are ongoing, the results thus far are considered preliminary.

John Kellam, a biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, reported that he and others conducted mortality surveys between July 22 to Sept. 8 in a 618-acre area on public lands within the burn perimeter of the Cottonwood Trail Fire.

A shot of the aftermath of the Turkey Farm Road Fire in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve near Green Springs in Washington City, Utah, July 2020 | File photo courtesy of the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee, St. George News

After a thorough inspection of the area, a total of 25 desert tortoise remains were found, with 14 being directly attributed to the fire.

“The remains were found under burnt bushes, by burrow entrances or open areas on rocky hillsides,” Kellam said.

Four live tortoises were found, which included a fire-injured adult female that had to be taken in by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for care until her injuries healed, Kellam said.

Additionally, the BLM survey also located 133 tortoise burrows that were considered active or in good condition, yet no tortoises were inside burrows at the time.

“The Cottonwood Trail Fire resulted in the direct mortality of a significant amount of tortoises, including adults, immatures and juveniles,” Kellam reported.

Sarah Thomas, lands program manager for Conserve Southwest Utah, shows reporters a Mohave desert tortoise shell, St. George, Utah, Dec. 12, 2019, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

As there may yet be many dead tortoises in deep-soil burrows and caves, as well as remains that have been picked clean by predators, the actual number of fire-caused tortoise deaths is likely being underestimated, he said.

Schijf said during his report Tuesday that they are going to be looking at the impacts of these fires “for a long time.”

While there is the immediate impact the mortality surveys is trying to get a handle on, Schijf said the impacts to tortoise habitat – much of which has been torched – will bring its own problems. With the plants the animals feed on being gone, it can lead to eventual starvation.

Schijf’s group also conducted surveys. They were done on state-owned lands within the desert reserve covering an estimated 100 acres in the areas of the Middleton power lines and lower Mill Creek and were conducted using volunteers.

“We had a lot of volunteers asking what they could do,” Schijf said, adding after the committee meeting that an additional mortality survey using volunteers may be announced in the coming weeks.

Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, St. George News

Thus far, Schijf’s surveys discovered 11 tortoise carcasses and found many more alive. He estimated that they found around four live tortoises for every dead one.

“We have found a good number of live tortoises,” he told the committee. “We have more live tortoises than dead ones within the perimeter of the Turkey Farm Road Fire. At least we are seeing most tortoises did survive the initial impact of the fire.”

It is the lingering impacts that worry Schijf and others involved in the Habitat Conservation Plan.

Both state and federal agencies have plans in place to begin reseeding efforts within the desert reserve in order to regrow food sources for the tortoises and other impacted wildlife. Unfortunately, it’s not something that can be done quickly.

“It takes those native shrubs a long time to grow back,” Schijf said.

There are plans to seed the burn areas from the air using a mix of native and non-native vegetation. The non-native vegetation is considered to be a viable alternative to invasive cheatgrass, which can spring up in burn scars and is extremely flammable.

A shot of the aftermath of the Cottonwood Trail Fire in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County, Utah, July 2020 | File photo courtesy of the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee, St. George News

Some replanting and habitat rehabilitation efforts may take place sooner than others. Some of the BLM’s reseeding plans won’t take place until the fall of 2021.

In the meantime, Schijf said he hopes the weather cooperates and rains come when they traditionally have, or else food in the reserve will be scarce and add to the tortoise deaths indirectly caused by the fires.

Because of this and other factors, the true impacts of the Cottonwood Trail and Turkey Farm Road fires may not be known for a handful of years.

Schijf said it could take at least three years.

“We just don’t know yet.”

There has been a worry among wildlife and conservation officials that the 2020 fires could be a repeat of fires from 2005 and 2006 that tore through the desert reserve and destroyed 25% of the tortoise habitat within it. This is estimated to have led to the death of 15% of the overall tortoise population.

Both the Cottonwood Trail and Turkey Farm Road fires were human caused.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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