Vandals destroy desert tortoise dens

  • Desert tortoise

    Drew Ross

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.

For years biologists and environmentalists have been studying ways to keep the prehistoric reptile from succumbing to new golf courses and housing developments.

In all their analyses, however, they didn't count on sabotage.

Last 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 exposure.

"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 survive."

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.

Officials do 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 says.

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 lands.

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, 800/662-3337.

The writer works for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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