Desert Tortoise Training

From this post title, it might appear that I took part in training desert tortoises. In reality I participated in a workshop to learn how to survey, monitor and handle desert tortoises. The 2-day workshop is conducted annually in Ridgecrest, CA by the Desert Tortoise Council and covers a tremendous amount of material including:

  • an overview of desert tortoise taxonomy, life history and threats to its survival
  • information on handling, monitoring, and surveying for desert tortoises
  • authorized egg handling and burrow construction demonstrations

One important fact we learned very early was that based on DNA, geographic, and behavioral differences between desert tortoises populating the areas east and west of the Colorado River, the desert tortoise has been split into two species: Agassiz’s Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and Morafka’s Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai).  With G. agassizii occurring in California, Nevada and Utah on the west side of the Colorado River and G. morakfai occurring in Arizona, and the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico. So, I guess it’s time to update our field guides.

A range map depicting this split can be seen here: http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2842#.UKfYG-Oe9B9

We were also instructed on desert tortoise life history, threats and legal protection.  As the workshop was aimed at biologists who are working to survey, monitor and protect tortoises in the face of development, the workshop included many topics on the laws and legal framework for protection, preservation and take of the species from all of the permitting agencies that we’d potentially be working with (BLM, USFWS, CaDFG, etc.).

Our field sessions included demonstrations on:

  • how to construct protective fencing and shade structures
  • how to construct artificial burrows
  • how to relocate a nest of tortoise eggs
  • how to collect body size and condition data

We also learned how to survey for desert tortoises, including what signs to look for (scat, tracts, geophagy, burrows, etc.) after which we were given the task of surveying a plot that was pre-seeded with tortoise sign.

Finally, Desert Tortoise Council Tortoise Handling Workshops are recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While a certificate of attendance does not guarantee a USFWS permit, completion of the Workshop should help with the permitting process.

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