Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office
Pacific Southwest Region

Mojave Desert Tortoise

Keep Wild Tortoises Wild and Captive Tortoises Captive

It is legal to be a custodian of a desert tortoise if it was in captivity prior to the desert tortoise's protection under the ESA in 1990. This includes their progeny.

It is illegal to collect desert tortoises from the wild.

Captive tortoises may carry diseases that might harm wild populations of desert tortoises making it illegal to release unwanted pets to the wild.  
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 captive tortoises have been able to thrive with regular food and water. Their longevity and uncontrolled breeding of captive tortoises has resulted in thousands of unwanted pets.

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.

Although there are thousands of captive tortoises they do not necessarily contribute the recovery of the species. 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.

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. The Fish and Wildlife Service and our partners are screening captive tortoises that come into the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center to determine if they are healthy enough to be released in carefully chosen locations in the wild.

Keep captive tortoises captive. Release of unwanted captive-bred tortoises to the wild can threaten the wild population without a thorough health screening 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 captive tortoises are competing for limited food, water, and shelter.

While captive and wild desert tortoises may carry many of the same diseases, captive 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.

  • My captive Desert Tortoise Can Be A Threat To Wild Tortoises?(1.1MB PDF)
  • What to do if I find a Desert Tortoise
  • Captive Desert Tortoise Frequently Asked Questions

    Captive Tortoises in Arizona:

    Arizona Game and Fish
    (602) 942-3000

    Captive Tortoises in California:

    California Turtle and Tortoise Club
    California Department of Fish and Game
    (661) 285-5867

    Captive Tortoises in Nevada:

    To help address the underlying issues caused by the proliferation of unwanted captive tortoises, the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) proposes to implement a change in Nevada Administrative Code (NAC503.093) that would limit possession of captive desert tortoise to only one per individual if the tortoise was obtained after enactment of this regulation.

    For more information on the captive adoption or transfer programs or on captive tortoise care in Nevada, visit the Tortoise group website (external link) or call the Desert Tortoise Information Line (702-383-8678).

    Public instructions for handling Tortoises

    Captive Tortoises in Utah:

    Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
    (435) 879-8694     (801) 538-4830

    State of Utah Natural Resources Division of Wildlife Resources (external link)
    (1.4MB PDF)

    Last updated: March 29, 2018