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NEVADA FWO: Captive No Longer -- One-Time Pet Mojave Desert Tortoises Released to the Wild
Pacific Region, May 23, 2013
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Research Associate Larisa Gokool affixes a radio transmitter to the shell of a tortoise at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. The transmitter will help scientists follow the reptile’s movement after it is released to the wild.
Research Associate Larisa Gokool affixes a radio transmitter to the shell of a tortoise at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. The transmitter will help scientists follow the reptile’s movement after it is released to the wild. - Photo Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS
Andy Butsavich, a volunteer at the DTCC, records the GPS coordinates of the spot he has chosen for the release of a tortoise.
Andy Butsavich, a volunteer at the DTCC, records the GPS coordinates of the spot he has chosen for the release of a tortoise. - Photo Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS
Andy Butsavich releases the tortoise at the base of a creosote bush. This was one of 32 formerly captive Mojave Desert tortoises released to the wild in eastern Clark County, Nevada on May 1, 2013.
Andy Butsavich releases the tortoise at the base of a creosote bush. This was one of 32 formerly captive Mojave Desert tortoises released to the wild in eastern Clark County, Nevada on May 1, 2013. - Photo Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS
A once-captive Mojave Desert tortoise begins its new life in the wild. The radio transmitter is placed on the side of the shell to minimize the potential for the unit being scraped off or impeding the tortoise’s movement.
A once-captive Mojave Desert tortoise begins its new life in the wild. The radio transmitter is placed on the side of the shell to minimize the potential for the unit being scraped off or impeding the tortoise’s movement. - Photo Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS

By Dan Balduini

As recent as a year ago, they were in backyards in the Las Vegas area. Today, they are finding their way in the open desert. Mojave Desert tortoises, 32 in all, were released to the wild at daybreak on May 1 to live out their lives as nature intended. They are part of a larger number of former pet tortoises that could be translocated this year from the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) to the eastern Mojave Desert.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and San Diego Zoo Global (Zoo) plan to release several hundred formerly-captive tortoises in 2013 in the Greater Trout Canyon area. The reptiles were set free at strategic locations on approximately 30,000 acres in western Clark County managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The land is on the southwestern bajada (alluvial plain) of the Spring Mountains. The 32 tortoises released May 1 were fitted with radio transmitters that will help scientists track their movements. The Nevada Department of Wildlife assisted in the translocation.

The 32 tortoises chosen for this release were housed at the DTCC for at least one year prior to being set free. Each tortoise underwent meticulous health screening and testing to ensure they carry no transmittable diseases and that their overall condition would not compromise their chances for survival. The tortoises were released in or near deeply cut washes. The high-cut banks of the washes are dotted with small caves the tortoises can use for cover until they dig their own burrows.

The translocation effort is serving two main purposes; population augmentation and research. Recent surveys indicate that the population of wild tortoises in the Greater Trout Canyon area has declined since the early 1990s. The translocated animals are expected to bolster the population and, at the very least, slow the decline in numbers. Research includes checking on the released tortoises at regular intervals to determine how they are adapting to their new environment and assessing the true potential for successfully integrating captive and wild tortoises to stabilize and possibly increase an area’s population.

The DTCC has taken in several thousand unwanted pet tortoises over the past few years. Many of those pets were born in captivity—the results of uncontrolled “backyard” breeding. While translocating the one-time pets may help stabilize the tortoise population in the wild, the center’s mission does not include serving as an animal shelter.

The Service, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and the Zoo continue to educate the public about the responsibilities of caring for a pet desert tortoise and the problems that can arise when home breeding is not controlled. Coincidentally, the State of Nevada recently issued a regulation limiting new tortoise custodians to one animal per household.

The DTCC’s mission is to support range-wide recovery efforts for the desert tortoise through conservation research, on-the-ground recovery actions, training of biologists, and public education. San Diego Zoo Global operates the DTCC under an agreement with the Service. For more information about the center and desert tortoises, visit  http://blognew.sandiegozoo.org/ category/conservation/ desert-tortoises/ or http://www.fws.gov/nevada/desert_tortoise/ dtro/.

Dan Balduini is a public affairs officer at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Contact Info: Daniel Balduini, 702-515-5480, daniel_balduini@fws.gov



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