Leave the tortoises alone: DWR reminds of Utah’s laws amid uptick of crimes

Local News

A desert tortoise in its native habitat in Washington County. Photo by Jason Jones, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Thinking about taking a desert tortoise out of the Utah wilderness? Don’t.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conservation officers have seen an uptick in tortoise-related cases with nine being investigated this year alone. In addition to not removing tortoises from Utah’s wilderness, authorities remind that out-of-state tortoises have the proper certification when accompanying their owners to Utah.

According to DWR, the majority of the tortoise-related cases occurred in Washington County, the native range of the Mojave desert tortoise in Utah, while two cases happened in the central part of the state.

In Utah, it is illegal to collect or remove desert tortoises from the wild. The Mojave desert tortoise, found in north and west of the Colorado River in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California, has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Because of this, desert tortoises are protected under federal and state laws. It is also illegal to release captive tortoises back into the wild or to transport them into Utah without the proper papers.

“Removing tortoises from the wild can harm wild populations by reducing their ability to reproduce and sustain themselves on the landscape,” DWR Wildlife Biologist Ann McLuckie says. “Tortoises that are removed from the wild cannot be released back into the wild, due to a risk of introducing diseases, especially if they’ve been kept in a home with other animals. They are susceptible to a density-dependent disease called upper respiratory tract disease, which presents like pneumonia.” 

If you own a desert tortoise and are moving to Utah, you must apply for the proper certifications to bring the slow-moving creatures with. Without the proper certifications, the tortoises must return to an approved adoption facility within the previous state.

SLIDESHPW: Utah’s desert tortoises

“Unfortunately, it is fairly common that we have to seize tortoises either brought into the state illegally or that are illegally removed from the wild,” DWR Lt. Paul Washburn says. “All the tortoises from these recent cases were seized and will be placed into our tortoise adoption program.” 

In the 1990s, the Utah Desert Tortoise Adoption Program was launched after tortoises were placed on the Endangered Species list. If you are interested in adopting a tortoise, DWR says you should:

  • Email tortoise@utah.gov to inquire about tortoises available for adoption. 
  • Design a safe outdoor and indoor environment for a tortoise, following the DWR guidelines.
  • Apply for a Certificate of Registration to legally adopt a desert tortoise. (It costs $75.)
  • Be aware that tortoises can live up to 80 years, and note that you are responsible for all veterinarian costs.

The majority of the Beehive State’s tortoises live in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Experts estimate 2,000 adult tortoises can be found here.

“If you see a desert tortoise when you are hiking, watch it from a distance and leave it alone so other people can enjoy it as well,” McLuckie says. “Tortoises are cute, but they can live for decades, may outgrow their artificial habitats, and can dig themselves out of  — or simply escape — most backyards. Please let them stay wild and don’t add to the decline of their population.” 

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