A helping hand

Las Vegas orchard provides fresh produce for locals, safe homes for owls, and now, tortoises


A student from the Bob Price Community Center proudly displays the huge weed she pulled from one of the tortoise habitats at the Gilcrease Orchard in Las Vegas. Students from the community center helped the Service and Get Outdoors Nevada with maintenance of the Mojave Desert tortoise habitats by removing weeds and leaving the plants the animals prefer. Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS

By Dan Balduini
July 24, 2019

In the far northwest part of the Las Vegas Valley, surrounded by housing developments, the Gilcrease Orchard is a popular spot where people can purchase fresh, seasonal produce throughout the year and perhaps catch a glimpse of some native wildlife.

The orchard became a non-profit foundation more than 20 years ago in order to save one of the last vestiges of agriculture in the Las Vegas Valley.


One of two desert tortoises living at the Gilcrease Orchard in Las Vegas peeks out from his burrow as children from the Bob Price Community Center help remove unwanted vegetation from its habitat. Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS

The foundation has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for about 10 years to provide protected land for burrowing owls. The effort is paying off, as the birds are producing offspring using artificial burrows installed by the Service and its partners. Additionally, owls eat mostly insects in the summer, helping the orchard control pests on its fruits and vegetables.

In the fall of 2018, orchard management decided to bring awareness to the plight of the threatened Mojave desert tortoise by adopting two of the reptiles.


Students from the community center help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Get Outdoors Nevada with maintenance of the habitats for the resident Mojave Desert tortoises. Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS

Before the tortoises could move to the orchard, Get Outdoors Nevada teamed up with Tortoise Group, volunteers, and students from Silverado High School to construct two habitats; one for each of the tortoises.


Service biologist Christiana Manville talks to the youth from the Bob Price Community Center about desert tortoises and their shrinking habitat in the Mojave Desert. Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS

The two spots are built with short cinderblock walls that prevent the tortoises from digging their way out. Each enclosure has a burrow and a water source. Children from the Bob Price Community Center pitched in by planting native vegetation the tortoises can eat.

The youngsters from the community center recently returned to the orchard to remove weeds from the two tortoise habitats. The enclosures also serve as demonstration gardens that show what individual homeowners need to provide if they want to adopt a desert tortoise. Get Outdoors Nevada constructs gardens at schools and local parks to help educate the public about native plants and natural wildlife habitat.

Tortoise Group is a non-profit organization formed in 1982 to educate and advocate for the protection and well-being of the desert tortoise. The Las Vegas-based group is the only organization authorized to provide adoption services for captive tortoises.

“The orchard is providing a great opportunity for young people to see live tortoises up close and to learn about the proper way to provide habitat for captive tortoises,” said Sarah Mortimer of Tortoise Group. “By helping remove weeds from the enclosures, the children are also learning which plants are good for tortoises to eat and which ones aren’t.”


A tortoise exits his burrow for a snack. Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS


This young lady proudly displays the name given to one of the two male desert tortoises living at the Gilcrease Orchard in Las Vegas. Her card was picked to name one of the tortoises Jordan, while the second tortoise is “Doc Holiday.” Credit: Dan Balduini/USFWS

Horticulturist Mark Ruben is the orchard director. He believes the tortoises are natural additions to the Gilcrease educational mission. “I think it’s important for urban children to learn about the natural world,” Ruben said. “This orchard offers young people an opportunity to see where some of their food comes from.”

The Gilcrease Orchard is located at 7800 N. Tenaya Way in Las Vegas, and more information is available online at www.thegilcreaseorchard.org.

Those interested in adopting a captive desert tortoise can fill out an application on Tortoise Group’s website at www.tortoisegroup.org. The site also provides information on creating a tortoise burrow, as well as details on diet and care.

Students and teachers wishing to plant a native habitat garden at their school can visit the Get Outdoors Nevada website at getoutdoorsnevada.org.

To learn more about the Mojave desert tortoise, visit www.fws.gov/nevada/desert_tortoise/dt/dt_life.

Story Photo

Dan Balduini

About the writer...

Dan Balduini serves as the public affairs officer for Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office in Las Vegas, Nevada.

A former radio and television reporter with more than four decades in communications, Dan spends his free time enjoying his family, while pursuing his other loves—playing golf, fly fishing, and watching college and pro football.

More stories by Dan:

Unconventional help for the wild desert tortoise
Off the paved road...
'Rush hour!'