‘Leave it alone’: Wildlife officials ask public to stop taking protected tortoises from their habitat

ST. GEORGE — From drought to ravens to wildfires, the Mojave desert tortoise faces many threats to its species’ continued survival, and Utah wildlife officials are asking members of the public not to add to those threats by removing the tortoises from the wild.

Stock photo of Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Nov 2, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Red Cliff’s Desert Reserve, St. George News

So far this year, there have been nine reported instances in Utah of people taking tortoises from the wild or bringing them into Utah from out of state without proper certification by their owners, according to a press release from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

The majority of the cases occurred over the summer in Washington County — the native range of the Mojave desert tortoise in Utah — while two of the cases took place in the central part of the state.

“A significant part of my outreach is telling people that it is illegal to keep a desert tortoise as a pet, and it is illegal to remove a tortoise from their their desert habitat,” Lura Snow, the outreach coordinator for the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, told St. George News. “When people are recreating out in the reserve, there’s no reason to ever touch a tortoise.”

In Utah, it is illegal to collect or remove desert tortoises from the wild. The Mojave desert tortoise, located north and west of the Colorado River in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. As such, desert tortoises are protected under federal and state laws.

People removing desert tortoises from the wild is nothing new, Snow said, adding she suspects people in the region have been taking the tortoises home since the area was settled in the mid-1800s.

In this 2015 file photo, desert tortoise fencing and a power line are seen in an existing utility corridor that runs along Cottonwood Road north of St. George in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Washington County, Utah, Aug. 29, 2015 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

DWR wildlife biologist Ann McLuckie said in the press release that removing tortoises from the wild can harm populations by reducing their ability to reproduce and sustain themselves on the landscape.

It is also illegal to release captive tortoises back into the wild or to transport them into Utah without the proper certifications.

“Tortoises that are removed from the wild cannot be released back into the wild due to a risk of introducing diseases, especially if they’ve been kept in a home with other animals,” McLuckie said. “They are susceptible to a density-dependent disease called upper respiratory tract disease, which presents like pneumonia.”

People can adopt a desert tortoise through the Utah Desert Tortoise Adoption Program, which began in the 1990s after tortoises were placed on the Endangered Species list. If you are interested in adopting a tortoise, you should do the following:

  • Email [email protected] to inquire about tortoises available for adoption.
  • Design a safe outdoor and indoor environment for a tortoise, following the DWR guidelines.
  • Apply for a Certificate of Registration to legally adopt a desert tortoise, which costs $75.
  • Be aware that tortoises can live up to 80 years, and note that you are responsible for all veterinarian costs.

If someone feels they can no longer keep a desert tortoise, instead of dumping them out in the wild, McLuckie told St. George News that people should drop the tortoises off at the DWR office in Hurricane, “with no questions asked.”

Stock photo of desert tortoise, St. George, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, St. George News

“We encourage that because we don’t want people to drop it off in the wild,” she said, reiterating that the animals will have a hard time surviving and could introduce diseases.

The DWR Field Office for Washington County is located at 451 N. state Route 318 (5300 West) in Hurricane and can be reached at 435-879-8694.

If a desert tortoise owner moves from another state into Utah, they must apply for the proper paperwork in order to bring their tortoise with them. Otherwise, they must return the tortoise to an approved adoption facility within their previous state.

“Unfortunately, it is fairly common that we have to seize tortoises either brought into the state illegally or that are illegally removed from the wild,” DWR Lt. Paul Washburn said. “All the tortoises from these recent cases were seized and will be placed into our tortoise adoption program.”

In this 2018 file photo, a live Mojave desert tortoise is displayed at an open house event held at the Dixie Convention Center, St. George, Utah, March 28, 2018 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Faith Heaton Jolley, the DWR’s public information officer, told St. George News that the penalties for removing a desert tortoise can range from a class B misdemeanor charge for unlawful possession to a felony-level offense for wanton destruction.

Class B misdemeanors carry a fine of up to $1,000, while a felony can run $5,000 and above due to the severity of the offense. In addition to the fines, both the misdemeanor and felony-level offenses carry the potential of incarceration for the offender.

“If you see a desert tortoise when you are hiking, watch it from a distance and leave it alone so other people can enjoy it as well,” McLuckie said. “Tortoises are cute, but they can live for decades, may outgrow their artificial habitats and can dig themselves out of — or simply escape — most backyards. Please let them stay wild and don’t add to the decline of their population.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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