SCIENCE

9 cases of illegal tortoise related behavior in Utah investigated

Nov 4, 2021, 11:34 AM
A desert tortoise in its native habitat in Washington County. Photo by Jason Jones, Utah Division o...
A desert tortoise in its native habitat in Washington County. Photo by Jason Jones, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

SALT LAKE CITY — There has been uptick in illegal behavior regarding tortoise relocation and ownership, and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) conservation officers are not pleased. 

The DWR reiterated on Thursday that it is illegal to collect or remove desert tortoises from the wild in Utah.

The Mojave desert tortoise has been recognized as threatened to be endangered for over 30 years. They were officially declared threatened in the Endangered Species Act of 1990. Therefore, Desert tortoises are a protected group of reptiles under federal and state laws. 

The harm of desert tortoise removal cannot be undone

DWR Wildlife Biologist Anne McLuckie explained the dangers of removing a desert tortoise from their homes located north and west of the Colorado River, and spanning three states; Nevada, California, and Utah. 

Removing desert tortoises from the wild reduces the population’s “ability to reproduce and sustain themselves on the landscape,” said McLuckie. Further, once in captivity, desert tortoises cannot be reintroduced to their native habitat. Tortoises that are released back into the wild threaten other animals with the potential of diseases such an upper respiratory tract disease.

“Colorado river dams” Map of the Colorado River. Photo: Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colorado_watershed.png

$85 for legal tortoise ownership documents in Utah

DWR emphasized that it is also illegal to transport desert tortoises into Utah without the proper certifications. The application requires a $10 handling fee and restricts the applicant to ownership of one tortoise only. Once approved, a $75 Certificate of Registration (COR) fee is incurred. If a desert tortoise owner from out-of-state moves to Utah, it becomes necessary that they obtain new certifications. Otherwise, the owners have to return the tortoise to an approved adoption facility in their previous state. 

Desert tortoise sun bathes on a rock Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

The DWR reported that the majority of the 9 cases of potentially illegal tortoise-related behavior DWR investigated this summer were in Washington County. Two of the cases took place in central Utah. 

A burrow is among the items an adopted desert tortoise needs. Photo by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

DWR’s Lt. Paul Washburn said, “All the tortoises from these recent cases were seized and will be placed into our tortoise adoption program.” 

A wild desert tortoise pokes its head out of a burrow. Photo by Jason Jones, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Tortoises are cute. Let them be cute in their home habitat

McLuckie said it’s best to enjoy the wildlife, in the wild.

“If you see a desert tortoise when you are hiking, watch it from a distance and leave it alone so other people can enjoy it as well. Tortoises are cute, but they can live for decades, may outgrow their artificial habitats and can dig themselves out of  — or simply escape — most backyards. Please let them stay wild and don’t add to the decline of their population.” 

A desert tortoise in its native habitat in Washington County. Photo by Jason Jones, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

There are roughly 2,000 adult tortoises in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in Utah. At roughly 5 to 9 adult desert tortoises per square mile, Red Cliffs has one of the highest densities of Mojave desert tortoises.

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9 cases of illegal tortoise related behavior in Utah investigated