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Tortoise population in southern Utah steady but small

Tortoise population in southern Utah steady but small

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) – The Mojave Desert Tortoise population is holding steady in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in southern Utah, but the animal still hasn’t fully recovered from fires and drought that negatively impacted the population more than a decade ago.

The Spectrum newspaper in St. George reports (http://bit.ly/1SKJ0J0 ) that wildlife officials counted about 15 Mojave Desert Tortoises per square kilometer in a sampling taken last year in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. In 2013 there were 16 tortoises per square kilometer.

Though the population has held steady in the last few years, it is still well below the 28 per square kilometer counted in 1999. The population suffered major losses due to drought and disease in 2003 and wildfires in 2005.

The tortoises have been monitored since they earned the status as a federally threatened species in 1996. Since then the species has been granted broad protections along almost 100 square miles of lands to the north of the St. George metropolitan area.

State lawmakers this week heard complaints about the federal Bureau of Land Management’s plan to restore native habitat for the tortoises. Local official said the plan unfairly hurts ranchers and could harm the local economy, violating terms negotiated under a 2009 law that established two conservation areas.

When the reserve was created, most of it was on federal land, but some private owners lost what they considered highly valuable property. The federal government has spent years negotiating purchases or land swaps to exchange federal properties for those located within the reserve.

Washington County Commission Chairman Alan Gardner said at the meeting this week that the county is considering filing a lawsuit over the proposal and the ongoing disputes over public land.

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Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com