Across a bajada in the Sonoran Desert bumps a creature that at first glance appears to be a rock come to life – a closer look reveals it to be a Sonoran desert tortoise, plodding along in search of plants to eat. Though she is one of the largest native herbivores in her ecosystem in terms of mass, her reach is limited – this slow searcher will have to pass up any vegetation taller than a half-meter.
Sonoran desert tortoise populations are found primarily on the rocky slopes and bajadas of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico. The tortoise in this bajada may be up to 35 years old. Having had such a long life in such a dry environment, she has a few tricks up her shell – she is well adapted to conserve water, and seeing her outside of the cool burrow where she spends 95% of her time is a lucky break. Neighbors in her burrow may include ground squirrels, pocket mice, kangaroo rats, spotted skunk, kit fox, burrowing owl, Gambel's quail, poorwill, roadrunner, and a number of other reptiles and insects.
But unlike desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert and the Beaver Dam Slope in Utah, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Sonoran desert tortoise was denied protection by the Federal Government in 1991. This leaves the tortoise in this bajada vulnerable to myriad threats – she may be run over by an off-road vehicle, her stomping grounds may be encroached on by urban sprawl, or she may find herself wandering through a herd of grazing cattle that eat her forage, trample her vegetation, introduce invasive plants to her habitat, and damage her burrows. Because of these myriad threats, Sonoran desert tortoise populations have declined by 51 percent since 1987.
WildEarth Guardians and our partner, Western Watersheds Project, are pushing relentlessly for federal safeguards for this rare and long-lived desert wanderer.
Every population of desert tortoises deserves strong protections under the Endangered Species Act, and we will continue to advocate for this tortoise until she can wander with a secure future through her Sonoran Desert home.
photo credit: Dennis Caldwell
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