Joshua Tree’s Desert tortoises facing new set of challenges as experts fear risk of extinction

They’ve been on the endangered species list since the 1990s, and now the desert tortoiseNew challenges are ahead

The 10-inch, 12-pound reptile is the Mojave’s most iconic animal, but the desert tortoise is on the brink of extinction, and it turns out humans are one of their biggest threats.

Michael Vamstad has been working at Joshua Tree National Park since 1998.

The wildlife ecologist frequently travels through the desert to search for tortoises in the park. He finds Elizabeth, a female turtle around 40 years old, after carefully trekking through desert terrain for 30 minutes.

A small radio transmitter is attached to her shell to send a signal to his receiver.

“Every time we find a tortoise we take GPS points using our tablet,”Vamstad claimed.

The National Parks Service currently monitors 12 tortoises. They’re all checked on about every two weeks during the active season.

California was the first to list the desert tortoise. ‘threatened’ under the state’s Endangered Species Act in the late 1980s. Their population has fallen by almost 90% since they joined the federal endangered species list in 1990.

“We’ve done surveys for desert tortoise in the late ’80s, early ’90s, within the park, and found that there is close to 20 to 30 tortoises per square kilometer.,”Vamstad stated. There are now less than four turtles in a square kilometer. Last year, it was 3.2 tortoises.

“Why the three is very important is that anything under three tortoises per square kilometer actually puts the species at risk of extinction,”Vamstad claimed.

What is causing the huge decline in tourism? Vamstad says there are several reasons including drought, disease, and … traffic collisions.

“Likely the biggest threat to our desert tortoises in the park are people hitting them with their cars,”He said.

Park officials posted signs warning drivers about endangered reptiles last year after the park received 3 million visitors. There’s even a video on their website showing How to move one from the road correctly.

In addition to unexpected human interactions, desert tortoises are also having a hard time dealing with California’s worsening drought.

The desert tortoise can store water for up to a year, and although their name suggests they belong in an arid environment without much water, they aren’t doing well living in severe drought.

“They can handle certain amount of drought but it seems like we are getting more and more droughts back to back and it’s knocking them down,”Vamstad claimed.

In the 1990s, the tortoise population was also affected by disease.

A bacterium is a major cause of a widespread disease that causes symptoms similar to the common cold.

“If you’re a tortoise living in the desert like this and you get a head cold, you’re going to lose a lot of water and that tends to be why it kills them,”Vamstad claimed. “They’re already under water stress.”

Although the disease is still prevalent, it is not as severe as it was 15 years ago when wildlife experts often saw tortoises suffering from runny noses.

Vamstad believes that even though most people won’t see their impact, they are crucial for the ecosystem’s survival.


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