Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the Origin of St George Utah's Desert Tortoise Population and More Biodiversity vs the Economy

St. George, Utah has become known as "Utah's Dixie," its temperate climate with mild winters make it ideal or year-round golf and as a location for retirement communities, it is also a gateway to Zion National Park. Red Cliffs Desert Reserve is located in north of St George, in Washington County in a transition zone between three ecosystems: the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau. The Reserve supports a unique flora and fauna with species from each of the regions, as well as endemics. Red Cliffs was originally created for the protection of the Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii in 1996. The tortoise is listed as Threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. However, the Reserve also protects habitat for other sensitive species.

Drew Allard, has now written a commentary for the Spectrum, a southwest Utah media outlet, questioning whether the Red Cliff’s tortoise population is worthy of protection. Allard suggests that the population is not native, and is the result of humans transporting the tortoises. He writes, 
“… early in the 20th century they were accidentally transported here from a department store on Utah Hill in the Beaver Dam Mountain range west of St. George. Dixie State College professor Glen Blakley said, "A free tortoise was given to people when they bought a bucket of water on Utah Hill to cool (their) overheated car. So by the time the people would get to St. George, the parents say to their kids, 'Put that thing out now.' This claim isn't denied or accepted by the Red Cliff Reserve’s Biologist Cameron Rognan, who acknowledges the story with a conceding grin. He admits that there are indications of tortoises from the Beaver Dam Mountain range getting a lift from humans, but he emphasizes that these hitchhikers were most likely additions to the already established St. George tortoise population. He suggests that the tortoises are probably native to both areas." 
The first reference to tortoises in Utah appears to be in Tanner (1927), when he refers to the presences of tortoises in a bird checklist for the Virginia River Valley of Utah. Angus Woodbury (1930) officially recorded the tortoise as part of the Utah fauna in 1930, And Woodbury and Ross Hardy (1948) started studying the Utah tortoise population in 1936. They marked 281 tortoises, 182 were recaptured a total of 812 times. Of interest is that found 17 specimens that showed signs of being in captivity, five specimens had holes drilled in their shells, probably so they could be tethered, two had initials carved in them. One bore the date 1932 and the initials “CR”, but by 1942 when the turtle had been recaptured, the initials had disappeared and the “1932 looked like “1132.” Thus, there is evidence that humans have been moving the Desert Tortoise around for a while. The straight line distance between The Beaver Dam Slope tortoise population and Red Cliffs is about 16 miles, but much of the distance is a mountain barrier that may have prevented the tortoises from colonizing the St. George area by itself. 

Allard cites an AP report that $96 million was spent in the U.S. on preserving desert tortoises between 1996 and 2006. And, notes that not only does the tortoise collect money, it prevents money from being made – the presence of the tortoise is blocking the construction of a solar energy complex that could generate billions of dollars for California's economy. However, the proposed site is located on BLM land― desert tortoise habitat.

As for southern Utah, Allard cites the Red Cliffs Reserve annual expense report showing the reserve has declining income, spending about $400,000 on all expenditures.. While in 2009 they spent $613,000; in 2008, they spent $805,000; and in 2007, they spent more than a million dollars. These amounts were Red Cliffs Reserve’s expenditures as a whole, not just for the tortoises. The Reserve is multi-purpose and used by hikers, bikers and rock climbers.

Thus the argument of the environment verses the economy continues. Some molecular work on the St, George tortoises could settle the problem of its origins. Unfortunately, it will not settle the issue of dollars vs conservation or dollars vs biodiversity.

Tanner, V. 1927. Notes on birds collected in the Virginia River Valley of Utah. The Condor, 29:196-200.

Woodbury, A. M. 1931. The reptiles of Utah. Bulletin of the University of Utah 21:1-129.

Woodbury, A. and R. Hardy. 1948. Studies of the Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii. Ecological Monographs 18:145-200

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