Desert tortoise rescued from mineshaft in Newberry Mountains Wilderness

Lucky the male desert tortoise rescued from the mineshaft

A desert tortoise is once again above ground roaming the desert, thanks to the collaboration and dedication of the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Cave and Technical Rescue Team.  

In early March, former BLM employee Tom Egan and his daughter Kynna were exploring the BLM’s Newberry Mountain Wilderness, when they spotted a desert tortoise at the bottom of a 30-foot-deep mineshaft. Newberry Mountains Wilderness, managed by the BLM Barstow Field Office in California, is about 26,000 acres with mazelike canyons, rugged volcanic terrain and evidence of past mining activity scattered throughout the area. Concerned for the tortoise’s well-being, they called several agencies to report their discovery. 

Once contacted, the BLM, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish & Wildlife worked together to find rescuers with the proper training and equipment to rescue the tortoise. Luckily, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Cave and Technical Rescue Team was available to assist. 

A day after the tortoise was discovered, Egan led a team of three rescuers and Chris Otahal, wildlife biologist with the BLM Barstow Field Office, to the mineshaft in the Newberry Mountains Wilderness. The team evaluated the situation and due to the sheer and soft sides of the mine, determined rappelling was not an option. After several hours of preparation and set-up, the rescuers used a large tripod apparatus to safely lower a rescue team member into the mine and emerged with a large, male tortoise named “Lucky.” 

Four people examine a shaft in the desert

“It was remarkable how quickly the agencies involved came together to rescue this tortoise,” said Otahal. “We are thankful the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Cave and Technical Team was available to assist on short notice, and the tortoise was found in good health.” 

The BLM monitored the tortoise for two nights to ensure he was hydrated, uninjured and healthy. Otahal performed a health assessment and saw no signs of disease or injury, and determined the tortoise was about 50 years old.  

Rescuers lowering into the mineshaft

On a cool March morning, after two nights of observation, the BLM released Lucky back to his home in the Newberry Mountains Wilderness, not far from where he was found. The area was lush with early sprouts of vegetation, and he headed straight for a juicy patch, lucky to be back on the surface in time for spring.  

“Desert tortoises can live to about 100 years old, so Lucky is in the prime of his life,” said Otahal. “It was important to rescue this tortoise because it takes so much time and energy to reach his age and now, he can continue to reproduce and contribute to the long-term survival of the species. With his luck he will be bopping around the desert for another 50 years.” 

Wildlife biologist Chris Otahal and Lucky the desert tortoise
Wildlife biologist, Chris Otahal and Lucky, the desert tortoise.

The timing of the tortoise discovery was serendipitous. In cold winter months, desert tortoises hide in burrows and enter brumation, a lower state of activity with a low metabolic rate, to survive extreme temperatures when food is scarce. In March, when temperatures start to warm and moisture and vegetation increase, tortoises exit brumation and seek food and females for mating. Otahal suspects Lucky was exiting brumation and starting to get active when he was discovered.  

A few days after the rescue, the BLM remediated the mine to ensure it would not be a future hazard to wildlife or the public. The opening was encircled with chicken wire and large rocks, and groundwork was completed to secure the mineshaft.  

Art Basulto stands over a closed mine
Art Basulto, BLM, remediates the mine in Newberry Mountains Wilderness.

The BLM Barstow Field Office is home to more than 2,000 small historic mines and shafts and is actively involved in the abandoned mine program, which addresses physical safety and environmental hazards associated with abandoned hard rock mines. The field office regularly completes mine closures and remediations for the safety of the public and wildlife. The BLM continues to work diligently to secure the thousands of mines across the Barstow Field Office.                   

Kate Miyamoto, Public Affairs Specialist. Photos by Chris Otahal, Tom Egan, and Mary Norton.

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