As a vacation and retirement destination, southwestern Utah boasts a mild year-round climate and the world-famous Zion National Park.
It's also home
to the most viable population of the Mojave desert tortoise, a
creature threatened with extinction.
biologists and environmentalists have been studying ways to keep
the prehistoric reptile from succumbing to new golf courses and
In all their analyses,
however, they didn't count on sabotage.
month, biologists discovered that four desert tortoise dens have
been intentionally destroyed. Biologists on routine patrol
discovered that someone used bowling-ball-sized rocks to block the
entrances to at least three winter tortoise dens on a private
housing project west of the town of Hurricane, Washington County. A
tortoise den west of St. George was stomped in, causing certain
death to any animals inside.
Dens hold from one
to as many as 10 or 12 tortoises. Trapped inside the den, an animal
can starve. If trapped outside during the winter, it could die of
"The configuration of their wintering
den is not something you find everywhere," said Marilet Zablan,
biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's not always
a given that there will be other dens within their home range. If
there aren't suitable sites in that home range, they will not
Protected under the Endangered Species
Act, the tortoise is found on about 129,000 acres in Utah. Its
threatened status has pitted developers and local politicians
against biologists and environmentalists. Because of the tortoise,
prime lands around St. George will not be open for real estate
development. And in Hurricane, the animal may thwart or alter plans
to develop an 18-hole golf course.
not know the motive behind the tortoise-den tampering, but the
worst-case scenario is that it is in response to the controversy.
Such a phenomenon is not new. People angry over the special
protection given to the Florida scrub jay chopped down trees that
the birds live in. And to protest the northern spotted owl debate
in the Northwest, owls have been nailed to boards, Zablan
What's frustrating to Zablan is that the
tampering came after Washington County officials submitted their
latest "habitat conservation plan," which tries to reconcile the
needs of development with the needs for the tortoises' survival.
The plan allows some development on desert tortoise lands in
exchange for special, perpetual protection on other
Harming a threatened species is a federal
offense punishable by up to a year in prison and a $200,000 fine.
Anyone with information about the desert tortoise incidents is
urged to call the poaching hotline,
writer works for the Deseret News in Salt Lake