Fifteen years ago, I hiked for two days in the Mojave Desert before I finally saw one: an Agassiz’s desert tortoise. Today, finding one would likely require even more effort.
The tortoise, also known as the Mojave desert tortoise, finally made it on California’s endangered species list two years ago — temporarily. It may soon revert back to threatened status, even though it’s still very much in danger of vanishing from the land.
Despite the efforts of many, the number of tortoises continues to drop. In areas set aside for their recovery, such as the place I found one, the population has been cut in half since I was there — and is down 90 percent since the 1980s, when people started trying to save them.
Development is the main factor in their decline, although one of their recovery areas is in an area that was once supposed to rival Los Angeles. California City is a city that was never built. Developers got as far as selling plots and clearing land, but never managed to lay a foundation or frame a single house. The roads and cul-de-sacs are all dirt.
The plans for the community collapsed in the 1970s. While terrible for investors, it seemed like a gift to the tortoise. Trouble is, with dirt roads crossing abandoned land, the area has become a haven for off-roaders. Tortoises have been crushed under the tires of dirt bikes and ATVs.
The tortoises were eventually granted a fenced-off reserve, but they are still threatened by development.
Outside what would have been California City are a couple of major projects: a garbage dump and a wind farm. Those projects require the service of big trucks. Big trucks cause roadkill. Roadkill attracts ravens. Ravens adapt and multiply. When there isn’t enough roadkill to feed them all, they turn to young tortoises whose soft shells offer no protection. Out of 100 hatchlings, fewer than 5 will reach adulthood.
Politics makes conservation difficult enough. Finding a solution to a complicated chain of events can be almost impossible.
It’s not that people don’t care. When I was hiking in the desert, there were about a dozen other people who were also trying to see the incredibly elusive Mojave desert tortoise. It spends the vast majority of its life underground. Over the course of a year, it may be outside its burrow for only a couple of weeks.
Rain is one of the things that can prompt the tortoise to emerge. They do need water, although they can go for long periods without it. The week I was there, heavy rain had caused the wildflowers to bloom. The primary way tortoises get water is by eating vegetation that is full of it.
With the help of a ranger, I finally spotted one as it was walking toward a small patch of flowers. I dropped to the ground and laid on my stomach so that I could photograph it at its level. I managed to get one action shot as it was about to chomp down on the tiny blooms. Less than an hour later it was back in its burrow.
A Mojave desert tortoise that reaches adulthood can live 50 years or more. The ranger told me that the one I photographed was about 20, which would put it in its late 30s now. I hope it’s still around. And I hope we can figure out some way to save the species.