Utah's desert tortoise gets room to grow

Jul 23, 2013

Utah’s desert tortoises are getting a little more elbow room thanks to a new federal grant that will help expand a nature reserve in Washington County. UPR’s Matt Jensen reports.

On a blistering hot highway near St. George, bright yellow markers warn drivers to watch out for these ancient, shelled crawlers that live in a tiny desert nook of Southwestern Utah. Their home here is the farthest north you’ll find a desert tortoise in the United States. And although the reptiles survive in this harsh climate, they’ve been listed as a threatened species for more than two decades.

A desert tortoise is seen inside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in Washington County.
A desert tortoise is seen inside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in Washington County.
Credit Courtesy: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

In 1996, state and federal interests came together to create a sanctuary for the tortoise and other species. They named it the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

Researchers have been studying the desert tortoise for years and say the animals have something to teach us.

"The tortoise seems to know the weather better than we do," said Henry Maddux, director of endangered species for Utah’s Department of Natural Resources. He says the tortoise is docile, even curious about the world and well suited for its warm environment.

"They know the desert," he added. "When you get to a summer where there's severe drought and not much food, they seem to sense that; and they may stay in their burrows for most of the summer, and only come out for short durations. And yet they're able to survive. They've learned to adapt to a desert where some years you have lots of rain and other years you don't have any. They're a pretty neat critter."

The reserve is a 62,000-acre space that’s home to a variety of plants and animals including Gila monsters, roadrunners, snakes and tarantulas. The reserve has helped protect a truly unique mix of wildlife, but the land inside the sanctuary is fragmented, with whole portions right in the middle of the reserve owned by state agencies and private individuals.

But earlier this month, the refuge got some good news. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to divvy up $32 million in grants to wildlife conservation groups across the U.S., including the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The organization will get $1.4 million to acquire additional pieces of land that are already inside the boundary of the refuge.

"These properties we're acquiring are right in prime tortoise habitat," said Maddux. "It's pretty valuable property for desert tortoise."

Big real estate deals inside the reserve haven’t been easy. A Utah law makes privately owned land inside the sanctuary just as valuable as if it were open for residential or commercial development. And since private development isn’t an option, Maddux says landowners have been in limbo, waiting for opportunities to sell or exchange their parcels.

"It was decided that those areas would be bought out as money became available, or traded out for other properties," said Maddux.

And even though the land is useless on the real estate market, it still comes with a steep price tag.

'The land is expensive," he added. "But we've slowly been acquiring all those lands and there's not a lot left in the reserve. This money will be used to buy out some of those acres that belong to private individuals."

With the new funding, managers hope to purchase roughly 1,000 acres of space right in the heart of the reserve. Red Cliffs administrator Bob Sandberg is the man who applied for the funding. He says he requested more than what was received, so it could take more time and money to acquire all the land. Even though the grant is for less than he had hoped, Sandberg says he’s thrilled with the announcement.

"Can I say elation?" He said.

Sandberg has been running the sanctuary for five years. He says acquiring the new parcels will help fulfill the promises made to private property owners back when the reserve was created 17 years ago.

"We're trying to make good on those commitments to those property owners," he added, "and that we are acquiring habitat to protect it for the tortoise and other species."

There are other tortoise habitat conservation plans in California and Nevada. Utah’s tiny reserve, however, is unique because of its size and diversity.

"The desert tortoise is very unique to Utah," said Sandberg. "Washington County is the only place in Utah where the desert tortoise is found."

Maddux says the success of the reserve is crucial for the region’s biodiversity. Drought, disease and wildfire all affect tortoise populations. Today, biologists estimate there are 18 desert tortoises per square kilometer inside the reserve. For Utah Public Radio, I’m Matt Jensen.