California desert tortoises are hurtling toward extinction. Saving them won’t be easy

California’s Mojave Desert has become the backdrop of choice for many Instagram influencers who dig the aesthetics of Joshua trees and the otherworldly arid landscapes. Joshua Tree National Park now receives more than 3 million annual visitors, which has contributed to a localized housing shortage as more homes convert into Airbnbs to serve the influx of tourists.

But a resident who has called the region home long before humans ever arrived may soon be permanently pushed out. The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is inching closer to extinction, while conservation efforts are falling dramatically short, according to experts. Based on current projections, the tortoises may go extinct in just a few decades. Ironic, given the shelled reptile’s role as a poster child for the environmental movement.

“When the Mojave was a less impacted ecosystem, the tortoise was king. Now it’s more of a relic,” Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Salon. “In some ways, it’s the connection to the past for what the desert once was.”

“The tortoise has been such a flashpoint in the desert conservation scene since the ’90s,” Donnelly added. “In some ways, it is really indicative of a failure of our environmental regulatory regime.”

Averaging 10 pounds and maxing out around 15 inches long, the small, butterscotch-colored tortoise is about as heavy as a gallon of paint and not much larger than a bowling pin. But it has huge impacts on its environment. Found throughout the shrublands of California, Nevada and slivers of Arizona and Utah, it is specially adapted for digging burrows that other desert critters are known to adopt.

“All sorts of creatures use tortoise burrows. They are specially equipped for digging in a way that many creatures are not,” Donnelly explains, noting that the tortoises’ vegetative diet helps to spread seeds and nitrogen throughout the arid region. “It used to be all over the place. And so they were major drivers of ecosystem functions and nutrient cycling.”

Even renewable energy projects, like solar panel farms, are cutting up the tortoise’s home, making it harder for them to thrive.

Donnelly, who has spent around two decades in desert conservation, began his career with desert tortoise habitat restoration as a contractor for the Bureau of Land Management. He says the fate of the tortoise is “really a question as to whether our environmental laws and protections have long-term durability and meaning.”

The tortoise faces many threats, including encroaching urbanization, agriculture and pesticides, vehicles both on and off roads, mining operations and military exercises that drop bombs in the desert. Even renewable energy projects, like solar panel farms, are cutting up the tortoise’s home, making it harder for them to thrive, while the compounding threats of climate change, including droughts and wildfires, only multiply these stressors.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the invasive ravens that eat baby tortoises and the hazards of viral illnesses. Even though they can live for half a century, there’s many ways for a tortoise to perish before they die of old age. Accordingly, their populations have crashed dramatically. Some conservationists have described their dwindling numbers, even in protected areas, as “catastrophic,” with a 76 percent decline in some populations.

In California, the tortoise’s conservation status may be elevated to endangered by the end of this year.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international organization that assesses the level of extinction threats to animals, considers the Mojave desert tortoise to be “critically endangered.” However, the IUCN is not a federal agency and therefore has no enforcement power. In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the tortoise as merely “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, following a California state listing a year prior.

This allowed for the development of several conservation programs designed to save the tortoises. In California, the conservation status may be elevated to endangered by the end of this year. It wouldn’t change much in terms of protections, which are the same for threatened and endangered species, but it would boost the priority given to protect the tortoises.

Despite these efforts and the public attention that is given to the tortoise, these attempts are failing pretty miserably. The California Fish and Game Commission did not respond to Salon’s request for comment.

“If the agencies rigorously and faithfully applied the laws as they exist, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now,” Donnelly says. “But the agencies don’t. They let developers do whatever they want to come up with BS false mitigation schemes like translocation.”

Translocation happens when, for example, a developer wants to build a housing project or turn desert fields into solar panels. If a given parcel of land is occupied by tortoises, the company is required to have someone relocate them. But this hasn’t helped tortoise populations bounce back. In fact, it may be making things worse.

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“Translocating desert tortoises is pointless,” Donnelly said on Twitter. “As far as the long-term viability of the species and the populations affected, you might as well just kill them.”

As the population continues to crash below a minimum viability threshold, some tortoises will spend their entire lives wandering in search of a mate and never finding one.

Donnelly cited research that indicated 100 percent of translocated male tortoises failed to mate four years after being moved, and also pointed to a 2020 paper in the journal Science that described how genetic diversity plays a role in successful translocation. However, Donnelly says the paper buried the lede and glossed over how abysmal translocation efforts have been.

“The translocation area in Ivanpah Valley had a resident population of 1,500 tortoises and had 9,100 Tortoises dumped there over a 20 year period. And at the end of it all, there were 350 left,” Donnelly says. “So you’re talking about absolute catastrophe. More than 90% mortality. I mean, utter failure.”

This downward spiral will have stark implications for the genetic health of future tortoise populations, Donnelly explains. He says in many parts of the desert, the tortoises we have today could be the last tortoises we’ll ever have. As the population continues to crash below a minimum viability threshold, some will spend their entire lives wandering in search of a mate and never finding one.

“The population is so sparse,” Donnelly says. “And most of the tortoises’ range is below that threshold now. So that suggests that across much of the desert, tortoises are failing to reproduce because they just can’t find a mate.”

The desert tortoise is far from the only shelled reptile facing an imminent demise. More than half the 360 living species of turtles and tortoises are threatened with extinction, according to a 2020 analysis in Current Biology, which reported they have “the highest extinction risk of any sizable vertebrate group.” Other desert creatures like the Colorado River toads are also threatened by similar human-caused issues.

But Donnelly argues there’s not much that individuals can do to help desert tortoises aside from “voting for people who want a different way of development and life.”

“The things we need to do to save the tortoise, like stop burning fossil fuels, stop expanding our cities in an unsustainable fashion, stop centralized destructive energy production — those are the things we need to do to save ourselves,” Donnelly says. “It’s not just about the tortoise anymore. If we can save the tortoise and we can save ourselves. And conversely, if we don’t, then I think fate for humans is not all that hot.”

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