Pacific Southwest Region
California, Nevada and Klamath Basin

Federal and State Wildlife Officials Urge Keeping Wild Tortoises Wild and Captive Tortoises Captive

Jan 29, 2013

Contact: Jeannie Stafford (775) 861-6300
Teresa Moiola, NDOW, 775-688-1555
Erica Szlosek, BLM, 775-861-6629
Meghan Scheibe, Animal Foundation,

Federal and State Wildlife Officials Urge
Keeping Wild Tortoises Wild and Captive Tortoises Captive

Pet Tortoise Pick-Up Service Ends

LAS VEGAS-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. Their longevity and the uncontrolled breeding of captive tortoises has resulted in thousands of unwanted pets, many of which have been brought to the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a government facility.

The partners responsible for the facility – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Nevada Department of Wildlife are now looking at options for future operation. The funds used to run the Center have declined with the economic slow-down of the Las Vegas area and they can no longer support the thousands of former pets currently in the facility.

Keep wild tortoises wild. Keeping wild tortoises in the wild and appropriately managing their habitat is the key to recovering the species. Prior to protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1990, desert tortoises were collected as pets and individuals have been legally allowed to keep those desert tortoises as well as their progeny. However, since desert tortoises are now protected under the ESA, state and federal laws prohibit further collection of the species from the wild.

“One of the fundamental purposes of the ESA is to conserve the ecosystems upon which species depend, and raising individuals in captivity does not meet that purpose,” said Ted Koch, U. S. Fish and Wildlife state supervisor for Nevada.

The primary threats to desert tortoises are habitat based, and simply putting more tortoises out 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.

Keep captive tortoises captive. Unregulated release of unwanted captive-bred pet tortoises to the wild can
threaten the wild population and is an inhumane practice. If a captive tortoise is released into an area that already has a declining population of native tortoises it can create a situation where wild and pet tortoises are competing for limited food, water, and shelter.

While captive and wild desert tortoises may carry many of the same diseases, pet tortoises can spread disease picked up in captivity to tortoises in the wild. In 1989, information on high mortality rates and the presence of an upper respiratory tract disease in populations of the desert tortoise resulted in a temporary emergency listing as endangered. Diseases may not be apparent in a captive situation where the tortoise is well fed and watered, but can progress to become more debilitating and transmissible under the harsh conditions of the desert environment.

A desert tortoise pick-up service that has been transporting unwanted captive tortoises to the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) near Las Vegas has terminated. Instead, individuals unable to continue to care for their pets can transfer them to another custodian through an on-line pet tortoise adoption program or surrender them to the Animal Foundation (Lied Animal Shelter), 655 North Mojave Road, Las Vegas, NV 89101, phone: 702-384-3333. For more information on the pet adoption or transfer programs or on pet tortoise care,

Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. The DTCC is operated by San Diego Zoo Global in partnership with the Service, BLM, and NDOW. The termination of the pet pick-up service will move the DTCC from a transfer-and-holding facility for unwanted pets to a facility that will support range-wide recovery efforts for the desert tortoise through conservation research, on-the-ground recovery actions, training of biologists, and public education.

“The expertise of the San Diego Zoo will help the Fish and Wildlife Service and our partners to screen tortoises that can be released back to carefully chosen locations in the wild in conjunction with conservation research and management,” said Koch.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit Connect with our Facebook page, follow our tweets, watch our YouTube Channel, and download photos from our Flickr page.


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