A public-private partnership has obtained a parcel of Utah wilderness to protect the critical habitat of the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Washington County and the Utah Chapter of The Nature Conservancy joined forces to purchase 53 acres of private land to complete the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve near St. George.
The reserve supports the largest population of Mojave tortoises in the U.S.
Ann McLuckie, wildlife biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said adding to the preserve will protect the tortoise from the further loss of its habitat.
"The tortoise is actually protected under the Endangered Species Act, but it is listed as a threatened species, not an endangered species," McLuckie explained.
Mojave tortoises range from southern Utah and northern Arizona to parts of Nevada and California.
McLuckie noted the tortoise was put on the Endangered Species List in 1990, and moved to the lower "threatened" status when the Red Cliffs Preserve was created in 1996.
McLuckie added the encroachment of urban growth has put the Mojave tortoise most at risk. She pointed out conservationists see the desert-dwelling reptiles as an "umbrella" or "bellwether" species.
"Protecting tortoises indirectly protects the many other species that make up the desert ecology community," McLuckie stated. "It's kind of like a sentinel or a canary in the coal mine, so to speak. So we want to protect the desert tortoise to protect the overall health of the desert."
She reported at last count, there were only about 2,000 Mojave tortoises left on the preserve, and even fewer outside it.
She mentioned they often live to be 50 or 60 years old, but face both natural and man-made risks in their environment.
"Predators such as ravens and coyotes that can kill tortoises, and then human impacts, like tortoises getting crushed by cars," McLuckie outlined. "People like to build homes in the desert, so there is conflict between development and desert conservation."
McLuckie shared while federal law prohibits taking a desert tortoise from the wild, there is an adoption program available for Utah residents who live near the preserve.