September 29, 2008

Translocating tortoises preserves the threatened species

Story and photos by Brian Passey
Desert Valley Times

Riale Jo Worthen helps place a tortoise in a bucket.

St. George, UT - There is something magical about seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. It’s even more captivating to see rare animals, such as those listed as threatened or endangered species. In Washington County we have the presence of a few rare species, including the famous Mojave Desert tortoise, the largest reptile found in its namesake region.

The tortoise was first listed as threatened in 1990. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified 129,000 acres in Washington County as critical habitat for the tortoise in 1994, it created many restrictions and regulations for developers in the rapidly growing county. However, 1996 saw the inception of an incidental take permit, allowing development of known tortoise habitat as long as certain criteria are met. The incidental take permit created the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve as protected habitat managed by a habitat conservation plan.

The HCP manages the moving, or translocation, of tortoises from populated areas outside of the reserve into the reserve’s boundaries. A couple of years ago I went along with reserve officials on a translocation project where we transported a dozen or so tortoises from populated areas into the reserve. It was a fascinating and educational experience, which also offered a rare opportunity: the chance to hold a desert tortoise.

Because the threatened species is susceptible to disease and other trauma caused by interaction with humans, reserve officials ask the public to never touch the reptiles unless the tortoises are in immediate danger. For example, if you see a tortoise in the middle of the road it’s OK to move them to the side of the road, taking care to move the animal slowly and without startling it. A startled tortoise may evacuate its bladder in defense, losing valuable liquids necessary for survival in the harsh desert environment. If you do move a tortoise from the road you should always move it to the side of the road in the same direction it was traveling. If there is a fence nearby with low mesh designed to keep tortoises in the reserve and away from the road, place the tortoise inside the fence.

Reserve officials perform translocation projects a few times each year, giving new homes to tortoises found in populated areas. Tom Webster, outreach coordinator for the reserve, asks that residents not transport the tortoises to the reserve themselves because of the possibility of spreading diseases. Instead he asks residents to report tortoise sightings so reserve officials can carefully capture the tortoises. They then take the animals back to a temporary care facility to check for diseases before releasing them into the wild.

Bill Mader, HCP administrator, says the most common problem found in tortoises is respiratory track disease. When they arrive at the temporary care facility they are placed in separate pens so they don’t infect each other. If they are found to be healthy, biologists inject chips into the tortoises to track them before translocating them into the reserve. Once they are in the reserve, however, the danger is not over. Mader says fires are an increasing threat to the tortoise population because the Mojave Desert environment is not supposed to burn, as opposed to forests where occasional burns can promote a healthy forest. “Fires are a monster at the door here and across the whole West,” Mader says. Wildfires in the desert and other areas have increased in recent years because of the presence of invasive plant species that easily burn.

In late August, a group of people associated with the reserve and a few family members gathered to release seven tortoises into the wild and they invited me to come along again. “All seven of these guys are healthy,” Webster told me as we drove toward the translocation spot near Leeds. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be releasing them.” Bob Sandberg, the HCP biologist, says the captured tortoises came from a variety of areas near St. George. Some were found near the Green Springs area in Washington City while others came from the West Black Ridge — where the airport is located — and the East Black Ridge — also called Middleton Ridge or Foremaster Ridge. Once we reach the reserve they’ll join more than 350 other tortoises previously translocated and roughly 2,000 others already living there.

However, the tortoises are not always released in the same location. Mader says they spread them out to preserve the gene pool and to make sure there are viable populations behind different firebreaks in case of a catastrophic blaze.

Arriving in Leeds, Mader, Sandberg, Webster and I met up with the rest of the group, which included Ann McLuckie, a wildlife biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources; McLuckie’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin Bock; Justin Neighbor, a field technician for the reserve; and his 3-year-old granddaughter, Riale Jo Worthen. Despite their young age, it’s not the first time the little girls have seen desert tortoises. “She gets to see them a lot with Grandpa,” Neighbor says of his granddaughter. Because of past experiences, Riale Jo and Robin both know they have to wear protective gloves before handling the tortoises. They also know they can only move the reptiles when it’s time to take them to their new homes.

From Leeds we travel east through private property for better access to the new habitat. It’s possible to reach the area within the reserve by following the Historic Babylon Trail but since we’re lugging the heavy reptiles it’s much easier to make our way through the private property — with permission, of course. We drive as far as the road takes us, which is only up to the reserve boundary, marked as it is throughout the county with the characteristic meshing at the bottom of the fence.

We walk out along the trail, Robin and her mom leading the way. Once we are a quarter-mile or more into the reserve we spit into smaller groups to spread the tortoises out. I go with the girls, McLuckie and Neighbor as we veer off the trail and into a sparse creosote forests. “They like this creosote,” McLuckie says. “Oh, they love it,” Neighbor responds.

The creosote offers shade, but not food for the reptiles. McLuckie says they generally eat grasses and flowers. “They’re really exploratory eaters,” she says. “They’ll eat anything and if they don’t like it they’ll spit it out.” They have excellent memories when it comes to food, she adds.

While shade is an important element when looking for a place to leave the tortoises, McLuckie says they don’t necessarily look for established burrows because the tortoises will usually leave anyway. “This is kind of a new area for them so the first thing they want to do is explore,” she says.

Finally we located a couple of potentially good homes for the reptiles and prepare to set them free. Robin releases her tortoise first, carefully pulling it from the bucket with her gloved hands and gently setting it down in the shade of a creosote bush. We then move about 50 feet away and Riale Jo does the same with her tortoise. Both animals amble off slowly, exploring their new environment and preparing for what will hopefully be a long and disease-free life.

As we walk along the trail back to the vehicles, McLuckie tells me that they have seen little evidence of disease in the wild tortoises they monitor. They especially like the area east of Leeds, known as Zone 4, for translocating tortoises because they believe it is disease-free. They track the tortoises every 10 to 14 days through telemetry, or the method of gathering data electronically, thanks to the chips they injected into the recently released reptiles.

Because Zone 4 is a favorite translocation area, it’s also a good spot to look for tortoises in the wild, and it boasts some of the reserve’s best trails, like the nearby Arch Trail. So if you’ve never seen a Mojave Desert tortoise in the wild, head out to the Babylon area and try out one of the trails. Just remember: Look but don’t touch.