Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area - Desert Tortoise

 

desert tortoise eating a cactusThe desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is a gentle reptile which spends much of its life in underground burrows. The burrows are excavated by the animals to escape the harsh summer and winter weather conditions of the desert.

The animal historically occupied a range that included the desert in southeastern California, southern Nevada, western and southern Arizona, southwestern Utah, and Sonora and northern Sinaloa, Mexico. Today, the creature's populations are largely fragmented, although it can be found in declining numbers in most parts of its former range.

Tortoise emerge from their burrows in late winter or early spring and in the autumn to feed and mate.

The reptile can be active during the summer if temperatures are moderate. The desert tortoise is the largest reptile in the southwest. Unlike other reptiles which are often feared by man, the desert tortoise is an appealing creature which has become a popular pet, perhaps to its detriment. One reason for its appeal is that the animal is not a threat, but rather a vegetarian, eating a wide variety of herbaceous vegetation. One of its treats is the flower of annual plants.

Tortoise emerge from their burrows in late winter or early spring and in the autumn to feed and mate.

The reptile can be active during the summer if temperatures are moderate.  The desert tortoise is the largest reptile in the southwest. Unlike other reptiles which are often feared by man, the desert tortoise is an appealing creature which has become a popular pet, perhaps to its detriment. One reason for its appeal is that the animal is not a threat, but rather a vegetarian, eating a wide variety of herbaceous vegetation.  One of its treats is the flower of annual plants.

Unfortunately, the slow moving reptile is vulnerable to a number of threats which could led to the demise of the species.  These concerns lead to a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1984 to consider listing the desert tortoise under the Federal Endangered Species Act.  After further evaluation and public hearings, the tortoise was permanently listed as threatened on April 2, 1990.

Major problems which appear to affect the tortoise in all or part of its range include:

  • Loss or degradation of habitat because of off-road vehicles, military desert training maneuvers, various kinds of mineral extraction activities, grazing by cattle and sheep, and agricultural-residential development.
  • Taking of individuals for pets and other forms of collection.  Also, some animals have been killed outright or their shells mutilated in acts of vandalism.
  • Excessive predation of juveniles by other species such as coyotes, foxes and ravens.
  • Fragmentation of populations because of urbanization, highways and various rights-of-way associated with electric transmission lines, pipelines, etc.
  • A respiratory disease has been found in some tortoise populations, and it is suspected the disease may have been introduced by infected tortoise pets whose owners have returned them to the wild.

What protection comes with a listing?

Under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the desert tortoise population is protected from "taking," which includes harming, killing or harassing desert tortoise or removing them from the wild.  Violations are punishable by a fine and jail term.  The law requires Federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service if a proposed project they plan to authorize, fund or carry out may affect the species.  The Section 7 consultation process evaluates the impacts of the proposed action and determines whether the proposed action might jeopardize the continued existence of the species.

The Endangered Species Act -- Section 10(a)(1)(A) -- permits taking of tortoises for research. It is under this provision that the tortoises in The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center have been obtained. The tortoises in this center have been brought to this location under a joint research permit held by the Bureau of Land Management, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy.


  

           Red Rock Canyon                National Conservation Area

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