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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

NEVADA FWO: Keep Wild Tortoises Wild and Captive Tortoises Captive

Region 8, September 27, 2012
A desert tortoise samples some plants in the River Mountains in southern Nevada.
A desert tortoise samples some plants in the River Mountains in southern Nevada. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Jeannie Stafford, Public Affairs

Desert tortoises have lived in the area that is now the Mojave Desert for millions of years. Today, they are rarely seen in the wild and in some places have disappeared entirely. Even though desert tortoise populations have declined in the wilds of the harsh desert, captive pet tortoises have been able to thrive with regular food and water.

Prior to protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, desert tortoises were collected as pets and individuals have been legally allowed to keep those desert tortoises as well as their progeny.

Their longevity and the uncontrolled breeding of captive tortoises have resulted in thousands of unwanted pets. Approximately 1,000 of these unwanted captive tortoises are surrendered each year in the Las Vegas, Nevada area.

Captive and wild desert tortoises may carry many of the same diseases. However, captive tortoises could carry transmissible diseases to which the wild population has not been exposed making it illegal to release unwanted pets in the wild. Diseases may not be apparent in a captive tortoise that is well fed and watered, but can progress to become more debilitating and transmissible under the harsh conditions of the desert environment.

So why are they still protected under the Endangered Species Act if there are so many captive tortoises? One of the purposes of the ESA is to conserve the ecosystems upon which species depend, and raising individuals in captivity does not meet that purpose. The primary threat to desert tortoises are habitat based, and simply putting more tortoises in the wild is not effective if habitat quality is not sufficient to support them, or more importantly, support successful reproduction of wild tortoises already there. Addressing these issues in pet tortoises is consuming resources that could otherwise be applied to the conservation and recovery of wild populations.

Individuals are encouraged to keep their captive pets. If they are unable to continue to care for these captive tortoises they can transfer them to another custodian through an on-line pet tortoise adoption program or surrender them to the Lied Animal Shelter, 655 North Mojave Road, Las Vegas, NV 89101. For more information on the pet adoption program or on pet tortoise care, visit http://tortoisegroup.org/adoption.php.

Contact Info: Jeannie Stafford, 775-861-6300, jeannie_stafford@fws.gov