Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office
Pacific Southwest Region

Mojave Desert Tortoise

What do I do if I find a desert tortoise?

Few people are lucky enough to see a desert tortoise in its natural habitat. If you do, please do not ‘help’ it by picking it up or moving it. This is illegal and harmful to the tortoise. Do NOT take it home and do NOT feed it. Follow the guildlines below depending on if you are in the desert or in an urban area. If you find a sick or injured tortoise, call the appropriate state agency listed below.

When you encounter a desert tortoise in the wild follow these guidelines-

  • Enjoy the tortoise at a distance with binoculars, respecting that it is a wild animal. By keeping a distance, you will reduce stress to the tortoise. When a tortoise is frightened by an approaching person or dog, it may release the contents of its bladder. The loss of water can place the tortoise under unnecessary stress or contribute to early death.
  • Please do not handle tortoises. Do not pull tortoises out of burrows or cover sites. State and Federal laws prohibit touching, handling, or any type of harassment.
  • Be careful around tortoise burrows. The roof is very thin near the opening, and it is possible for you to trample the burrow, tortoise, or any nests.
  • If you see a tortoise crossing a remote, rarely-travelled dirt road, then you should drive around the tortoise, taking care not to injure it or damage any vegetation.
  • If you are on a well-travelled road and there is a chance that another vehicle will travel along the stretch of road and hit the tortoise, you may move it out of harm's way (If in Utah, you must call the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources). Stop your car in a safe place along the roadside. Quietly approach the tortoise. Note the direction the tortoise was heading. Carefully pick up the tortoise using both hands and hold it upright in its normal walking position. Carry it carefully across the road in the same direction it was heading, and take it no more than a few hundred yards into the desert. Place the tortoise in the shade. Wash your hands thoroughly even when you have had only passing contact with a wild animal.

When you encounter a desert tortoise in an urban area, please follow these guidelines-

  • Carefully evaluate the location. The location of the tortoise will give you an important clue as to whether it is likely to be a wild tortoise or a captive. Tortoises found on the fringes of residential areas in desert towns are very likely to be wild tortoises. They may wander in and out of unfenced yards and along streets on the edge of the desert. It might also be an escaped pet tortoise.
  • Without touching the tortoise check for signs of captivity, such as paint or holes in the shell. If there are obvious signs of captivity or the tortoise is well within an urban area (i.e., not on the edge of undeveloped desert), collect the tortoise and hold it in a box at room temperature in a secure location. Call the appropriate number below for further instructions.
  • If the tortoise shows no such signs of having been a captive and is near undeveloped desert habitat, it should be treated as a wild tortoise. If you find such a tortoise, do not handle it unless it is in immediate danger of being killed. Let it proceed on its way.
  • If you find a tortoise in imminent danger, you may move it out of harm's way (If in Utah, you must call the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources). Quietly approach the tortoise. Note the direction the tortoise was heading. Carefully pick up the tortoise using both hands and hold it upright in its normal walking position. Carry it carefully across the road in the same direction it was heading, and take it no more than a few hundred yards. Place the tortoise in the shade. Wash your hands thoroughly even when you have had only passing contact with a wild animal.

For each state in its range, there are different agencies or non-profit organizations that assist with desert tortoises. Contact the one for your area listed below:

Last updated: April 16, 2014