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Feds look at slow recovery of Mojave desert tortoise

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to set up several teams to take a closer look at its 17-year-old recovery plan for the estimated 100,000 endangered Mojave desert tortoises.

The agency announced Friday that the five teams, to be deployed in the coming months, will look at enforcement of current regulations and will document other factors affecting the tortoise, which lives in parts of Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and northern Mexico.

The teams will be expected to look for trends related to the tortoise’s population and compile that information in a database, which is new to the species recovery plan, said Roy Averill-Murray, a coordinator with the agency. Teams will also make sure police are regulating traffic in designated areas where the tortoises live.

“This (new) plan is addressing some shortcomings from the original 1994 plan,” Averill-Murray said. “We’re going to be tracking what is actually being implemented and enforce regulations already on the books.”

But at least one environmental group worries that the new plan does not go far enough — and may actually be a step backward.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service in the past has been a spearhead for recovery plans,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But this plan has watered down some things.”

She said that, among other potential issues, the latest plan does not directly address urban development and renewable energy projects around the tortoises’ homes. Such projects have caused the tortoises to migrate to areas unsuitable to their nature or have ruined grass in the area so the tortoises cannot eat.

Anderson also takes issue with the potential makeup of the teams. The service has reached out to local government groups such as the Arizona Game and Fish Department and expects other interest groups to apply.

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The plan said, “Teams will include a member of the (the Fish and Wildlife Service) to provide guidance and coordination to land/wildlife managers and stakeholders on the teams.”

But to Anderson, the “stakeholders” might not be experts in the field and might not consider the tortoise the same way a scientist might. “And that’s the scary part,” she said.

Averill-Murray explained that the teams would include at least one scientist, as well as university researchers and members of any other interest groups. The agency hopes to create the teams this year, with appointment by the director of the service.

“The idea is to have a broad-based aim to bring different perspectives (from the teams),” he said.

In 2001, there were an estimated 100,000 Mojave tortoises in the Southwest, but it is unclear if the number has gone up or down since then, Averill-Murray said.

“The tortoise population grows very slowly,” he said. “There is no real evidence that the population has grown dramatically or dropped down dramatically.”

One of the objectives of this new plan is to keep track of the growth or declines in the tortoise population, if any, in coming years, Averill-Murray said.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Federal officials want to know more about the Mojave population of the endangered desert tortoise so they can fine-tune the recovery plan that was set up 17 years ago for the animal.

Sonoran tortoises tracked by Pima County

A new interactive website allows Pima County residents to help scientists identify the habitat of the Sonoran desert tortoise.

The tortoise, native to Arizona and northern Mexico, is hardly ever seen, because it spends 95 percent of its life in burrows to maintain its body temperature. It emerges in late spring and during the summer monsoon season to feed and breed.

It is illegal to touch a tortoise without a state permit, because water stored in its bladder might empty if handled, which could hurt or kill a tortoise, the press release said.

If you see the tortoise dead or alive, take a picture, note your location, and report it on HerpCount.org, which was created by UA master’s degree candidate Dave Parizek, to record sightings of reptiles and amphibians.

More at New website tracks Sonoran desert tortoise