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Desert Tortoises (Gopherus spp.) Fact Sheet: Population & Conservation Status

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus spp.)

Population Status

Mojave desert tortoise

  • Across its range, populations of Gopherus agassizii have been experiencing large declines for more than 4 decades (USFWS 2015; Allison and McKuckie 2018; Berry and Murphy 2019; Berry et al. 2021; SDZWA Desert Tortoise Recovery Team, personal communication, 2024)
    • Densities have declined by up to 90% in some areas
    • Rates of decline vary greatly among regions and age classes
  • 2004 to 2014 data
    • Most recent range-wide studies of Mojave desert tortoises conducted by USFWS (2015), Allison and McKuckie (2018), and Berry and Murphy (2019)
    • Declines of adult tortoises observed in 4 of 5 monitored areas in the Mojave and Colorado deserts (Allison and McKuckie 2018 (see Table 5))
      • Only population found to be increasing was one small area, where densities were initially low (i.e., more potential for population growth)
    • Declines of juvenile tortoises observed in all 5 monitoring areas from 2007 to 2014 (Berry and Murphy 2019)
    • Overall population decline of 50% for adult tortoises (Allison and McKuckie 2018; Berry and Murphy 2019)
      • Declines varied by region (range: -27 to -67%) (Berry and Murphy 2019, Table 3)
    • Steep declines in certain regions (Allison and McKuckie 2018):
      • Western Mojave: adult densities declined by half (to 50% of their 2004 estimated population size)
      • Eastern Mojave: adult densities declined by two-thirds (to 33% of their 2004 estimated population size)
      • Juveniles declined even more drastically: 91% in Western Mojave and 77% in Eastern Mojave
  • See Berry et al. (2021) for discussion of estimates made prior to the early 2000s
  • Ongoing monitoring studies being conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Desert Tortoise Recovery Office

Conservation Status

Conservation Status

  • IUCN Status
    • Critically EndangeredGopherus agassizii (2020 assessment) (Berry et al. 2021)
    • VulnerableGopherus evgoodei (2018 assessment) (Edwards et al. 2018)
    • TFTSG Provisional Red List: Critically Endangered (assessed 2011 2018) (Berry and Murphy, 2019; Rhodin et al., 2018).
  • CITES Status
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)

History of Conservation

  • 1972: State Reptile of California
  • 1961: Illegal under California State law to collect desert tortoises.
  • 1973. Desert tortoise listed as Threatened by federal government
  • 1980: Beaver Dam Slope, Utah population of desert tortoises first to have federal protection
  • 1980: Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTNA) set aside as 102 sq km (39.4 sq mi) of natural habitat in Kern Co., California.
  • 1989: Emergency listing as Endangered for Mojave population; collecting is a federal offense.
  • 1989: Listed in California as Threatened
  • 1989: State Reptile of Nevada
  • 1990: Mojave population listed as threatened by USFWS
  • 1991: USFWS rules population south and east of Colorado River (Sonoran) "not warranted".
  • 2008: Petition filed to list Sonoran Desert tortoise under U.S. Endangered Species Act.
  • 2009: Sonoran Desert population of tortoises may warrant listing by USFWS as a distinct population with a critical habitat (Federal Register Aug 28, 2009)
  • 2009: 250-acre Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) inLas Vegas, Nevada (established 1990); operated from 2009-2014 by San Diego Zoo in partnership with US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Department of Wildlife, and Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Centers for Species Survival. (San Diego Zoo Website 2010)
    • Establishing science-based methods to select sites for release in wild and conduct follow-up monitoring
    • Training professionals, teachers, community leaders on tortoise recovery issues
    • Conducting research on-site, including health research
    • Cultivating community support for tortoises in the wild
    • San Diego Zoo maintains pet tortoise pick-up service for stray or unwanted pet tortoises and tortoises found in urban areas of Clark Co., Nevada
  • 2010: Around 1,000 desert tortoises brought to DTCC yearly
    • Many suffer effects of improper diet and care
    • After assessment, healthy tortoises are released into a 104 km sq (40 mi sq) protected habitat and monitored
    • Tortoises with metabolic bone diseases from lack of sunlight, and many other disease conditions are rehabilitated
  • 2014: Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, near Las Vegas, closes
  • 2017: Reserach funding obtained by the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation to again study survival and habitat use of desert tortoises
  • 2018: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance begins head-starting program (in partnership with USGS, Edwards Air Force Base, and BLM) (SDZG Press Release, 2018 Jun 29)

Threats to Survival

(Berry 1991) (Boarman 2001)

  • Off road vehicle traffic
  • Human collection and removal
  • Cattle and wild burro grazing
  • Roads, highways, railroads
  • Military activity
  • Vandalism
  • Habitat destruction
  • Toxic waste disposal
  • Mining
  • Global climate change and long term drought (USFWS 2009)
  • Invasive non-native plants (Boarman 2001)
  • Natural gas pipeline construction and maintenance (Olson et al 1996)
  • Wild predators
    • Coyote and Kit fox (Kelly et al. 2021)
  • Disease

Management Actions

  • Renewed efforts needed to organize a coordinated, structured recovery program
    • Requires participation by collective groups of land and wildlife management agencies (National Fish and Wildlife Foundation 2022)
  • Protection of critical habitat (USFWS 2021)
    • Adequate vegetation for shelter from high temperatures and predators
    • Nutrient rich forage species
    • Suitable geology for burrowing, nesting and overrwintering
    • Area for undisturbed movement, dispersal, gene flow
    • Mitigate human interference
  • Six Recovery Units defined
    • Western Mojave Northern
    • Colorado Desert Eastern
    • Colorado Desert
    • Northeastern Mojave
    • Eastern Mojave
    • Upper Virgin River
  • Designated a conservation-reliant species (Lovich et al. 2020)
    • Requires ongoing management by wildlife conservation professionals

Desert Tortoises Face Many Challenges

Desert tortiose

Human disturbance, collection, habitat loss, diseases, and drought and high desert temperatures pose the greatest threats to desert tortoises.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Berry (1991)
Boarman (2001)
California Fish and Game Website (2010)
Corn (1994)
Federal Register (Aug 28, 2009)
Rosmarino & Connor (2008)
Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (1996)
USFWS (1991, 1994)
Van Devender (2002)
Zylstra & Steidl (2009)

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