During the week of October 4, 14 federal, state and local government agencies and conservation organizations celebrated the third annual Desert Tortoise Week. This event, organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), provides opportunities for the public to learn about the life history and conservation needs of this iconic desert species. Activities throughout the week included the exchange of important information, such as the need to remove trash when exploring the desert, hiking and photography, and watching The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival, a film produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and FWS.
Conspicuously absent from the activities and presentations was the most important message people who care deeply about the desert tortoise and its habitat need to hear: The desert tortoise is rapidly heading toward extinction in the wild due to declining populations throughout a large percentage of its range. The reason? A combination of human activities; habitat loss; fragmentation and degradation; slow reproductive rate; high mortality; and failure to fully implement the recovery plan FWS developed for the species. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently confirmed this dire situation when it determined the tortoise is experiencing ongoing population declines and is now critically endangered.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s priority message for Desert Tortoise Week should be that the desert tortoise is facing serious threats, and we must act now before it’s too late,” said Jeff Aardahl, senior California representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Solutions must focus on long-standing problems and take every opportunity to stop preventable loss of tortoises.”
Desert tortoises are frequently killed on highways, dirt roads and trails. They also succumb to excessive off-road vehicle use. In addition, tortoises face raven predation, livestock grazing, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation.
FWS has the organizational structure in place to facilitate enhanced recovery through the long-standing Desert Tortoise Management Oversight Group, Desert Tortoise Recovery Implementation Teams, and the Recovery and Sustainment Partnership Initiative with the Department of Defense. Halting population declines and stopping the destruction of desert tortoise habitat are goals that only the federal government can effectively achieve—individuals and nonprofit organizations can’t do it alone. After all, it is the FWS that is charged with implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the desert tortoise and other endangered and threatened species.
Science-based evidence proves the desert tortoise is now in worse condition than when it was listed 31 years ago, indicating the mandate for federal agencies to conserve and recover the species has received far too little attention. Monitoring provides essential information required to assess the progress of species recovery, and for the desert tortoise, it’s documenting a rapid trajectory to extinction in five of the six recovery units for the species.
It’s time for FWS to exercise its leadership role in desert tortoise recovery with renewed focus and commitment. This should be done through meaningful interagency coordination to develop and implement recovery action plans for public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for managing approximately 75 percent of designated critical habitat for the desert tortoise. FWS can facilitate such interagency coordination and ensure that the desert tortoise recovers rather than goes extinct. You can help by contacting the Department of the Interior at email@example.com and the FWS, and urge them to take action to save the desert tortoise from extinction.