Tortoise populations hanging on in Red Cliffs
Populations of the Mojave Desert Tortoise appear to be holding steady in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, but they have still yet to recover from the devastating fires and drought that hit the area more than a decade ago.
Wildlife officials counted about 15 tortoises per square kilometer in a sampling taken last year, down slightly from the 16 per square kilometer counted in 2013, said Ann McLuckie, wildlife biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources, during a meeting Tuesday of the the area’s Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee.
The slow-moving desert dwellers have been closely monitored since the creation of the reserve in 1996, having earned status as a federally threatened species and granted broad protections along 62,000 acres of lands to the north of the fast-growing St. George metropolitan area.
But the population suffered major losses after a drought and subsequent disease outbreak in 2003 and after massive wildfires in 2005.
The population has held steady over the last several counts, but is still well below the 28 per square kilometer counted in 1999, McLuckie said, noting that because of continued development nearby, increased human activity and other factors she wasn’t sure whether the populations would ever get back to that point.
Larry Crist, Utah field manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the HCAC, noted that despite the drop-off, Utah’s pockets of tortoises remain among the most densely-populated in the Southwest.
Utah’s is one of several areas set aside for tortoise habitat, with others in California and Nevada, but the one here is unusual in its diversity and the density of the tortoise populations it can support, McLuckie said.
“Tortoises tend to do well in places that have always been tortoise habitat,” she said.
Susan Crook, land program manager with the group Conserve Southwest Utah, said administrators have generally done well to manage the tortoise populations, although there is still concern about the potential damage of a major fire or other traumatic event.
« One of the most effective ways to make the habitat healthier is a fire remediation effort, » she said. « That’s one of the huge issues and they’ve been having some success. »
The committee also heard an update Tuesday on efforts to renew the Habitat Conservation Plan that governs the reserve.
The plan technically expired in March, although administrators have continued to operate under the same rules under the expectation of a renewal.
Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said during the meeting that much of the discussion about a renewal has revolved around outstanding efforts to either buy or trade for private holdings still located within the reserve.
When the reserve was created, most of it was on federal land, but some private owners lost what had been considered highly valuable areas adjacent to existing residential areas.
The government spent years purchasing the property or negotiating land swaps that exchange other federal properties for those located within the reserve, and there are still some significant holdings that need to be resolved.
The reserve is administered by Washington County in coordination with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Department of Natural Resources and the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. For information, visit redcliffsdesertreserve.com.