Conservation plan being sought for Mohave Desert tortoise

Conservation plan being sought for Mohave Desert tortoise

A threatened species, tortoises play ‘vital role’ in the desert

Federal, state and local agencies are coming together in an effort to expand conservation and recovery efforts of the Mohave Desert tortoise in northwest Mohave County.

During Monday’s county supervisors’ meeting, staff was directed to work with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the development of the federal agency’s General Conservation Plan for the Mojave Desert tortoise.

The General Conservation Plan, used by Fish and Wildlife, provides a framework for addressing incidental take permitting under section nine of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Similar to a Habitat Conservation Plan, the GCP is designed to promote the conservation and recovery of endangered and threatened species such as the desert tortoise, said Brian J. Wooldridge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

“Under the GCP, private land owners will still be able to develop their land and be in compliance with the law and not be subject to take violations,” Wooldridge said. “If land owners are signed on to the GCP and follow all of the guidelines and stipulations of the mitigation measures then there is no recourse for legal action if a tortoise is harmed.”

Although the GCP is in its early planning stages, Fish and Wildlife anticipates a final document later this summer.

“We have a really good working relationship with Arizona Game and Fish … and we work really hard to promote that partnership, and then, when we have Mohave County onboard, all working together, this shows that efforts like this can be a good thing,” Wooldridge said.

As late as the 1950s, the desert tortoise population averaged at least 200 adults per square mile. More recent studies show the level is now between five to 60 adults. In some areas, the number of desert tortoises has decreased by as much as 90 percent.

The decline was caused primarily because of threats from urban development, OHV use, habitat loss, livestock grazing and disease.

Desert tortoise declines appear to have been most severe and widespread in the Western Mojave Desert. Recent estimates indicate that there are about 100,000 individual desert tortoises remaining in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

“People started paying attention in the 1980s and that’s when population trends were noticed and threats were assessed,” Woolridge said.

Listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act in 1990, tortoises play a “vital role” in the desert ecosystem.

Their burrows give shelter to other animals that are less capable of doing the digging on their own, such as snakes and burrowing owls. The burrows also increase percolation of the deserts limited rainfall into the soil to benefit desert plants and wildflowers, which in turn generate meals and shelter for a host of other desert species.

Are conservation and recovery efforts paying off? It’s hard to judge, Woolridge said.

“Tortoises are so long lived, living up to 100 years we think, so some of the positive results of what we are doing may not be seen for a while,” he SAID.

The desert tortoise is one of most elusive inhabitants of the desert, spending up to 95 percent of its life underground.

The desert tortoise lives in a variety of habitats from sandy flats to rocky foothills, including alluvial fans, washes and canyons where suitable soils for den construction might be found. It is found from near sea level to around 3,500 feet in elevation.