November 24, 2013

Clark County officials lament spending $15.7 million on desert tortoises

A desert tortoise tries to escape from a container at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas in this 2012 file photo. Under a state regulation set to take effect next week, pet tortoise owners will be allowed to keep one of the animals at a time.


The desert tortoise isn’t slow in going through money.

Clark County has spent at least $15.7 million since 2001 on efforts to protect the tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species by the federal government. Those efforts run the gamut from fencing to habitat restoration to sampling efforts to gauge the population.

County officials don’t have anything personal against the tortoise. But they also point to estimates that show some 50,000 desert tortoises are kept as pets in Clark County alone and openly question if the creature is as threatened as the federal government maintains.

“We’ve got people that are starving and such massive needs that we can’t keep pouring money into this,” commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said.

The broader issue of spending on the desert tortoise arose last week at the commission meeting during a routine approval of a $125,250 contract amendment with NewFields Companies for work in sampling the tortoise population at Boulder City Conservation Easement, an 86,423-acre area south of Boulder City.

Commissioners made it clear that they want to take a closer look in the near future at its multi-species habitat conservation plan, which was put in place in 2000. Under that plan, some $95 million has been spent on 78 species of protected plants and animals, including the tortoise. That figure includes the money spent on the tortoise.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys of 11,200 square miles of tortoise habitat across the four-state range provide an estimate of 95,000 adult tortoises.

By using that figure as a basis for estimating the desert tortoise population of all the range’s habitat, the result is fewer than 295,000 adult tortoises across 25,900 square miles.

In Nevada, as many as 91,000 adult tortoises are estimated to be living in some 8,100 square miles of habitat, according to federal figures.

The desert tortoise was listed as threatened in 1989, forcing the county to come up with a way to allow future develpment while complying with federal requirements to protect the species.

In 2000, the county adopted a multi-species habitat conservation plan, which it administers for all local municipalities. That plan carries out measures to compensate for the loss of habitat, such as restoration and monitoring of species, including the tortoise.

Under the plan, developers pay a $550 per acre fee, which goes to the county’s Desert Conservation Program, said Marci Henson, assistant director of comprehensive planning for the county.

Henson said the plan has helped streamline the environmental permitting process for private property owners, saving an estimated $300 million since the program began.

Tortoises live in blackbrush and Mojave desert shrub. They have brown shells that can grow longer than 14 inches long. They spend much of their time in burrows, venturing out to eat wildflowers and other plants.

They also live a long time — more than 50 years in some cases.

So the federal government will be spending years watching the current generation of tortoises across southeastern California, Southern Nevada and parts of Utah and Arizona.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began its monitoring efforts in 2001. It will take 25 years, until 2026, to gain enough data from a generation of tortoises to see the full scope of changes brought about by efforts to aid the animal’s population.

As a result, officials will have to wait years to see the results.

“They have to survive 20 years before they even start producing babies,” said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They’re not like rabbits.”

That effort includes looking at the overall long-term patterns and changes in the tortoise population, not just the current raw numbers.

Federal officials also say that pet tortoises aren’t part of the equation for classifying wild tortoises as threatened, as the pets can introduce diseases and genetic impurities if set loose.

The work on the deal approved last week involves sending teams out to look for tortoises and accompanying signs of the creatures and where they live. That entails looking for scat, bone fragments and burrows, said Ken MacDonald, a partner and senior environmental manager at Newfields.

Commissioner Susan Brager said at the meeting that there are more important things to spend much-needed funding on, such as helping young people succeed.

“We spend millions on certain animals and our youth do not get all the help they need,” Brager said.

In the end, it would be nice to spend the money on other things, Sisolak said.

As for the tortoises, they’ll still be counted in Clark County.

“They've survived on their own for centuries,” Sisolak said.