Coast to Coast : A Vanishing Tortoise in the Mojave Desert

Coast to Coast” is a summer blog series highlighting some of America’s most imperiled wildlife. By using the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new state-by-state endangered species map, we will tell stories about native plants and animals in unique landscapes where Defenders will be focusing its conservation efforts in coming years.

From southern California to eastern Arizona, the Mojave Desert covers nearly 25,000 square miles–more land than the state of West Virginia! It is home to famous American landmarks like Las Vegas, Hoover Dam and Death Valley National Park. Once seen as an inhospitable wasteland, the desert is actually a rich and thriving natural landscape. Unique plants such as the Mojave sage and Mojave prickly poppy make this their home, along with more well- known species such as Joshua trees and yucca plants. Even some threatened species can be found in the area such as Mexican spotted owl, Californian brown pelican and most notably the desert tortoise.

Desert tortoises have been wandering the desert for millions of years. Reaching lengths of up to 15 inches long, they are quite large for a reptile. These hardy critters live up to 80 years. Taking drastic measures in dry climate, these critters can go for a year or two without water. Most of the moisture they do get comes from the herbs and grasses they eat.

While hardy, desert tortoises are hiders. They spend 95% of their lives in underground burrows to beat the desert heat. Their time spent above the surface is kept to spring and summer in order to take advantage of fresh food. Unfortunately, these tough tortoises can’t hide from us humans and, as a result, have been disappearing at an alarming rate.

The Mojave Desert population is facing the greatest risk from habitat degradation, urban sprawl, poaching and various other threats. Overall, their numbers have dropped 90% since the 1950s, leaving behind tortoise populations that are far less dense. Where once 200 adults roamed in a square mile, now only five or six can be found. As a result, the desert tortoise was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1980. While progress has been made in conserving this species as described in the Fish and Wildlife Service podcast below, in recent years they are facing a slew of new threats.

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One of these threats that the terrific tortoise and other desert species are facing is reckless renewable energy development. With vast tracts of flat land and copious amounts of sunshine, the Mojave Desert may seem like the perfect place for solar power plants. But it is also a vital and sensitive habitat for many native species, many of which are slipping toward the brink of extinction.

Defenders supports clean energy, but we’re also fighting to make sure that solar and wind projects are built “smart from the start” to ensure that imperiled species still have a chance to recover. For example, earlier this year Defenders and several other groups intervened in the Pisgah Valley of the Mojave Desert to protect endangered wildlife. We sued the U.S. Department of Interior to stop construction of a solar farm that would have impacted critical habitat for desert tortoises. This area provides crucial pathways that link different tortoise recovery areas together. Other animals such as the burrowing owl and the golden eagle depend on this area too.

As green technology joins our energy grid, it is critical that these projects allow important wildlife conservation efforts to continue.  By building close to cities and making use of existing infrastructure, we can have clean energy that benefits people without harming wildlife. These are the kind of win-win solutions that can provide American with cleaner, greener energy without trampling on tortoises.