a brown tortoise with grey transmitters on its shell as it walks on the sand.
Desert tortoise showing off the locating transmitters that are attached to its shell. © © Dave Lauridsen

Animals We Protect

Desert Tortoise

Gopherus agassizii

Meet the Desert Tortoise 

With a large domed shell and stumpy legs, it’s quickly apparent why this creature has a reputation for being slow. But it’s not just the tortoise’s physique that makes it sluggish. Because the desert can be cold at night, especially in the winter months, the desert tortoise’s metabolism actually slows down so it doesn’t need to go out and forage for food. At this point, the tortoises are basically hibernating but are still alert enough that on warm days they can emerge from the burrow and actively bask.

Their front legs are slightly flattened so they can easily dig into desert sand and dirt and build shelters to stay in to keep warm. They stay in these burrows through the coldest part of winter, inactive but not hibernating. Some desert tortoises in their northeastern range brumate for more than six continuous months. Tortoises use the burrow similarly for temperature control when it gets too hot in the summer.

Desert tortoises are usually solitary, but sometimes they share burrows. When males come across each other, they might fight for dominance by trying to flip one another over. 

The tortoises can live up to 40 years in the deserts of the southwestern United States, but due to habitat destruction, desert tortoises are struggling for survival.

Protecting the Desert Tortoise 

Desert tortoise population numbers have decreased by 50 percent over many years in southern Utah due to damaging wildfires and habitat degradation brought about by invasive plants.

When the desert tortoise was listed as threatened in an emergency action by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1990’s, The Nature Conservancy joined with Utah’s Washington County, Nevada's Clark County, and many other partners to create Habitat Conservation Plans that protect the heart of the desert tortoise population. Serving on the Washington County’s Steering Committee, TNC participated in the design and creation of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, a 60,000-acre protected area north of the city of St. George. The protection of this area for the desert tortoise also brings protection to other rare and sensitive species—the gila monster, sidewinder rattlesnake, chuckwalla and peregrine falcon. 

In 1994, TNC also acquired Walking Box Ranch in Nevada, which was the climax of a four-year effort to protect the desert tortoise. This, along with two other acquisitions in the area, brings the total acres preserved by TNC in the Piute Valley to 439,000. Earlier, in a related action, TNC helped settle a major lawsuit over the listing of the species, which has resulted in over $1 million being allocated to desert tortoise research.

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