GEORGE - Already listed as a threatened
species, the desert tortoise is facing even
more obstacles in recent years.
Lori Rose, a county biologist for the Red
Cliffs Desert Reserve, said the biggest
challenge to protecting the tortoises once
was just keeping them within the low fences
surrounding the reserve. But recent droughts
and wildfires have caused even more havoc
for the tortoises.
"We've found that fences don't work with
fire and drought," she said. "You put those
things together and we took two big hits
back to back."
In 2003 biologists recorded a 25 percent
population decline because of the drought.
They also estimate there was a 37 percent
mortality rate among tortoises in areas of
the 60,000-acre reserve that burned during
The wildfires burned 15,000 acres,
including more than a quarter of the
critical area that is prime habitat for the
tortoises. Rose said more fires are likely
because of the highly flammable, invasive
Rose said Washington County had one of
the healthiest and densest populations of
desert tortoises in the Mojave range for a
long time. Before the fires, biologists
estimated the reserve's tortoise population
to be 2,406.
The dense population was partly because
the region receives more rainfall than other
areas of the Mojave, Rose said. But during
the severe drought, it was not uncommon to
see empty shells sitting in clusters.
The tortoise is classified as a
threatened species under the Endangered
Species Act. Rose said "threatened" means
the tortoise is "not as far down the road to
extinction as 'endangered.'"
Rose said these obstacles are why
biologists seek to educate the public about
the sensitivity of the species.
Rose outlined some basic rules for living
among the tortoises. One basic rule is to
never touch a tortoise within the reserve
boundaries unless it is in immediate danger.
When tortoises come in contact with
humans they can pick up diseases and infect
other tortoises. They also may void their
bladders in an attempt to protect themselves
and lose valuable liquids during the dry
Rose asked that people recreating in the
reserve - especially those on bicycles -
watch for tortoises on the trails and steer
clear of them. With high grasses, the
tortoises are more likely to walk along
human trails. It is also important for
people to stay on the trails because
wandering off the trails could disturb the
She also cautioned against taking dogs
onto the reserve without a leash. Though
most do not intend to harm the tortoises,
Rose said dogs frighten the animals and
disrupt their behavior. But the reserve,
which is home to a large population of
rattlesnakes, also could be dangerous for
Another big rule is to never take a
tortoise home as a pet. It is illegal.
"A tortoise taken home as a pet never
again has a chance to be wild," Rose said.
"Capturing stresses the tortoises."
Rose acknowledged that many people may
still have tortoises as pets from before it
was illegal to keep them. She said anyone is
welcome to turn tortoises over to reserve
biologists with "no questions asked."
Besides the possibility of disease,
another reason not to take tortoises home as
pets is because they are needed in the wild
to reproduce and help the population recover
from other challenges.
Outside of the reserve - or on roads than
run through the reserve like the Red Hills
Parkway and state Route 18 - protecting the
tortoises sometimes requires human
interaction. Rose said people will never get
in trouble for moving a tortoise out of the
Anyone who sees a tortoise in the road
should pick it up by its shell with hands in
between its front and back legs on both
sides. Keeping the tortoise level, it should
be placed off the road in the same direction
it was originally going, preferably on the
other side of one of the low fences.
Rose said it is important to place the
tortoise in the same direction because the
animals have a home range of about one mile
that they freely roam. Many of the tortoises
have been roaming these ranges for more than
25 years and know where they are going.
"They are persistent critters and they
will walk and walk and walk until they find
a place to get through," Rose said.
If someone sees a tortoise in the
developed part of town it is also important
to make sure they are out of harm's way and
that reserve officials are notified.
Not 'us or them'
Marshall Topham, assistant superintendent
for the Washington County School District
and former high school biology teacher, is
one of the residents Rose said has taken a
great interest in the tortoises.
Topham said he has participated in
translocating tortoises and volunteered to
help when the reserve was first organized.
Many residents also contact him about
tortoises when they are unable to reach
"There seems to be sort of a philosophy
in the community of it's 'us or them, man or
beast,'" he said. "I don't think it's an 'us
or them' issue."
Topham acknowledged that living among the
tortoises may seem like an inconvenience at
times, but he said it is worth the effort to
help the threatened animals.
"I think we might want to be
inconvenienced if it means the survival of a
species," he said.