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December 21, 2014

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Do not disturb: Imperiled desert tortoise needs its space — and a clean habitat — to survive

Image

Brian Nordli

Lake Mead National Recreation Area ranger Ben Jurand talks to a group about the declining population of desert tortoises at the Boulder Beach Campground on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. The desert tortoise has been designated a threatened species with its populations decreasing since 1950.

Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

A baby tortoise wanders around a new pen at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center on Thursday. Launch slideshow »

Mojave Desert Tortoise

A Mojave Desert tortoise is shown in a quarantine area at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas on Friday, Sept. 2, 2011. The tortoise, some kept by people as pets, will be returned to the wild when they are healthy enough to leave. Launch slideshow »

The desert tortoise has been around longer than the Mojave Desert, but now, for the first time in its 18 million year history it is struggling to survive.

For millions of years the desert tortoise has been able to adapt to its surroundings as life has evolved. It has survived the region’s transition into a desert climate, and later the construction of the Hoover Dam, which created Lake Mead. The football-sized reptile’s hard shell, ability to dig burrows to avoid the extreme desert conditions and store water makes it a resilient creature.

Yet the actions of humans over the past five decades have pushed the ancient reptile to become a threatened species on the cusp of endangerment. Lake Mead National Recreation Area ranger Ben Jurand addressed the issue Friday night at Boulder Beach Campground. Jurand said the tortoise population has declined from 200 per square mile in 1950 to a range of about six to 60 per square mile today.

“Basically we want people to understand what it means that the tortoise is a threatened species, and how we have an impact on them,” Jurand said. “Take care of the desert, we take care of the tortoises.”

Jurand, who works at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center animal shelter in Las Vegas, spoke to a small group of people about the actions that threaten the tortoise population.

Over the past five decades, humans have made it more difficult for the tortoise to survive. The expansion of roads and homes into the tortoise’s habitat has destroyed their burrows, making them susceptible to extreme heat and cold and predators.

An invasive grass called red brome has destroyed the indigenous desert plants and flowers it eats, while people leaving trash on the dusty desert floor has increased the population of ravens, a tortoise predator, in the area.

Other actions like playing with the reptile in the wild and reintroducing pet tortoises into the wild can make the tortoise more susceptible to predators or increase the spread of diseases among the reptiles.

Jurand’s presentation made Nancy Nolette, a tortoise-lover who is a member of the Las Vegas nonprofit Tortoise Group, realize people need to be more mindful around tortoises in the wild.

“We need to learn to leave them alone,” Nolette said. “They know what they’re doing.”

Jurand encouraged the group to build tortoise fences to prevent the turtle from entering roadways, keep an eye out for the reptile on the road and throw away trash.

Jurand said it is important to make sure the tortoises survive. The reptile is an important part of the desert’s fragile ecosystem. It is a food source for foxes, ravens and other animals, while the plants it eats are good for the plant’s life.

Plus, the desert tortoise has been around forever, and Jurand would like to keep it that way.

“They’ve been here so long,” Jurand said. “The species has managed to survive all these changes, I feel we have a responsibility to not impact its habitat.”

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