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Protecting the tortoises
Etiquette stressed in wake of fires, drought
ST. GEORGE - Already listed as a threatened species, the desert tortoise is facing even more obstacles in recent years.

Lori Rose, a county biologist for the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, said the biggest challenge to protecting the tortoises once was just keeping them within the low fences surrounding the reserve. But recent droughts and wildfires have caused even more havoc for the tortoises.

"We've found that fences don't work with fire and drought," she said. "You put those things together and we took two big hits back to back."

In 2003 biologists recorded a 25 percent population decline because of the drought. They also estimate there was a 37 percent mortality rate among tortoises in areas of the 60,000-acre reserve that burned during 2005 wildfires.

The wildfires burned 15,000 acres, including more than a quarter of the critical area that is prime habitat for the tortoises. Rose said more fires are likely because of the highly flammable, invasive cheat grass.

Rose said Washington County had one of the healthiest and densest populations of desert tortoises in the Mojave range for a long time. Before the fires, biologists estimated the reserve's tortoise population to be 2,406.

The dense population was partly because the region receives more rainfall than other areas of the Mojave, Rose said. But during the severe drought, it was not uncommon to see empty shells sitting in clusters.

The tortoise is classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Rose said "threatened" means the tortoise is "not as far down the road to extinction as 'endangered.'"

Rose said these obstacles are why biologists seek to educate the public about the sensitivity of the species.

Tortoise etiquette

Rose outlined some basic rules for living among the tortoises. One basic rule is to never touch a tortoise within the reserve boundaries unless it is in immediate danger.

When tortoises come in contact with humans they can pick up diseases and infect other tortoises. They also may void their bladders in an attempt to protect themselves and lose valuable liquids during the dry months.

Rose asked that people recreating in the reserve - especially those on bicycles - watch for tortoises on the trails and steer clear of them. With high grasses, the tortoises are more likely to walk along human trails. It is also important for people to stay on the trails because wandering off the trails could disturb the tortoises.

She also cautioned against taking dogs onto the reserve without a leash. Though most do not intend to harm the tortoises, Rose said dogs frighten the animals and disrupt their behavior. But the reserve, which is home to a large population of rattlesnakes, also could be dangerous for dogs.

Another big rule is to never take a tortoise home as a pet. It is illegal.

"A tortoise taken home as a pet never again has a chance to be wild," Rose said. "Capturing stresses the tortoises."

Rose acknowledged that many people may still have tortoises as pets from before it was illegal to keep them. She said anyone is welcome to turn tortoises over to reserve biologists with "no questions asked."

Besides the possibility of disease, another reason not to take tortoises home as pets is because they are needed in the wild to reproduce and help the population recover from other challenges.

Moving tortoises

Outside of the reserve - or on roads than run through the reserve like the Red Hills Parkway and state Route 18 - protecting the tortoises sometimes requires human interaction. Rose said people will never get in trouble for moving a tortoise out of the road.

Anyone who sees a tortoise in the road should pick it up by its shell with hands in between its front and back legs on both sides. Keeping the tortoise level, it should be placed off the road in the same direction it was originally going, preferably on the other side of one of the low fences.

Rose said it is important to place the tortoise in the same direction because the animals have a home range of about one mile that they freely roam. Many of the tortoises have been roaming these ranges for more than 25 years and know where they are going.

"They are persistent critters and they will walk and walk and walk until they find a place to get through," Rose said.

If someone sees a tortoise in the developed part of town it is also important to make sure they are out of harm's way and that reserve officials are notified.

Not 'us or them'

Marshall Topham, assistant superintendent for the Washington County School District and former high school biology teacher, is one of the residents Rose said has taken a great interest in the tortoises.

Topham said he has participated in translocating tortoises and volunteered to help when the reserve was first organized. Many residents also contact him about tortoises when they are unable to reach reserve officials.

"There seems to be sort of a philosophy in the community of it's 'us or them, man or beast,'" he said. "I don't think it's an 'us or them' issue."

Topham acknowledged that living among the tortoises may seem like an inconvenience at times, but he said it is worth the effort to help the threatened animals.

"I think we might want to be inconvenienced if it means the survival of a species," he said.

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