Nevada Officials Target Desert Tortoises

Mojave Max | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Officials in Clark County Nevada, which derived $4.5 billion in income in 2012 by attracting tourists to resorts on bulldozed desert tortoise habitat, are complaining about having spent a little over a million dollars a year since 2001 to protect the threatened species.

According to Ben Botkin in the the Las Vegas Review Journal, county officials are even questioning whether the tortoise is truly threatened. Despite the pols' doubts, the reptile's numbers have plummeted in recent decades due to disease and habitat destruction. Both of those ills can be directly traced to development such as the rampant growth that has driven Clark County's economy in recent decades.

The county, which includes much of southern Nevada including the Las Vegas area, saw extremely rapid growth in the years before the 2008 recession, Much of that growth took place at the outermost boundary of Vegas' developable region, meaning that tens of thousands of acres of local tortoise habitat were converted to boost the county's economy.

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The desert tortoise, declared a Threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, ranges from the California desert through Nevada and the Arizona Strip to southwestern Utah. A related species, Morafka's desert tortoise, occupies the deserts east of the Colorado River.

The urban areas of southern Nevada were once a critical habitat link between northeastern and southwestern populations of the tortoise, but a spate of development enabled by privatization of public lands has severed most of that connectivity. Under the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, passed by Congress in 1998, more than 50,000 acres of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management near Vegas became available for privatization and development.

That process of conversion continues to the present. According to a 2010 report by the Sonoran Institute, more than 28,000 acres (about 44 square miles) of former public land has been either auctioned or sold directly to developers since 1998, with another 5,200 acres of public land within the Las Vegas Valley's development boundary "exchanged" for land outside the boundary.

That means that in the last 15 years, a stretch of desert tortoise habitat the size of Anaheim, CA has been converted to urban use. Much of that conversion has taken place at the edges of town. Though infill development is usually far more sensible from a number of perspectives, Vegas' big-money developers prefer open land on which they can build large planned communities. As the recession hit in 2008, many such projects failed after their habitat had been bulldozed.

In return, developers within the are covered by Clark County's multi-species habitat conservation plan pay a development conservation fee of a few hundred dollars per acre, the proceeds from which go to the county's Desert Conservation Program.

Since 2000, the county has spent $95 million administering its habitat conservation plan, which was enacted to control development's effects on 78 protected plant and animal species. The tortoise is just one of those species.

According to Botkin, the issue of tortoise spending came up earlier in November during County Commissioners' discussion of a $125,000 contract for surveying the tortoise population in an 86,423-acre conservation easement near Boulder City.

At less than a buck fifty an acre to see how tortoises are faring in a stretch of land that's supposed to help keep the species going, that might seem like a thrifty bit of science. But apparently, that budgetary line item was enough to set county commissioners to talking about cutting the desert tortoise loose.

We've got people that are starving and such massive needs that we can't keep pouring money into this," said Commission chair Steve Sisolak, a Democrat who says he's considering a 2014 gubernatorial run. "[Tortoises] have survived on their own for centuries."

"We spend millions on certain animals and our youth do not get all the help they need," added Commissioner Susan Brager.

As this book produced by Barstow, California public school students attests, young people often find the desert tortoise a captivating native neighbor and an effective desert ambassador. In Las Vegas, the annual contest to guess the spring emergence time of Mojave Max, the Desert Conservation Program's "spokes tortoise" in residence at the Red Rock National Conservation Area, generates quite a bit of enthusiasm among schoolkids in Clark County.

It may be that those kids may well object to having their welfare set against that of the tortoises.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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