THE DESERT TORTOISE AND EARLY PEOPLES OF THE WESTERN DESERTS

THE DESERT TORTOISE
AND EARLY PEOPLES OF THE WESTERN DESERTS
 

by
 

Joan S. Schneider, Ph.D.
 

Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside
Riverside, California 92521, USA
 

A Special Report
prepared for the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.
 

March 1996
 

On the cover: Cahuilla Basketry Bowl made with natural and dyed juncus on a deergrass foundation with a tortoise or turtle motif, circa 1927. Collected at the Torres-Martinez Reservation, near Indio, California by Ira Caswell. In the collection of the Palm Springs Desert Museum. The basket is 15.7 centimeters (cm) or 6.2 inches (in) in diameter and 7.5 cm (3 in) high.

 

 

 

THE DESERT TORTOISE
AND EARLY PEOPLES OF THE WESTERN DESERTS

Desert tortoises (Gopherus [=Xerobates] agassizii) have been inhabitants of the Mojave and Colorado deserts of North America since Ice Age times.’ When people arrived on the scene, they interacted with tortoises in several ways: they noted their way of life, they found household and ritual uses for them, and they ate them. The past and present importance of desert tortoises to native peoples is reflected in the many archaeological sites that contain the physical remains of tortoises (bones and shell fragments), in native languages and oral traditions, and in media of artistic and symbolic expression.

THE IMPORTANCE OF DESERT TORTOISES TO EARLY PEOPLES

Archaeological, ethnographic, and historical data, gathered from many sources, have allowed a reconstruction of the ways that desert tortoises were important to the early peoples of the deserts. The archaeological record indicates that tortoises were used as early as 9,500 years ago2 and that their importance increased over time.3

As Food

The remains of desert tortoises that have been cooked and eaten have been identified at many archaeological sites in the desert West (Fig. 1); those sites include campsites on open landscapes, large roasting pits, inhabited caves and rockshelters, and residential structures.

 

Map of US distribution of Gopherus agassizii

Fig. 1. The current limit of the distribution of the desert tortoise in the United States (1920 to present) is designated by the screened area (adapted from Stebbins 1966; Kristin Berry, personal communication 1994). Each small dot marks one archaeological site where the cultural remains of desert tortoises have been found; each large dot represents a group of three or more sites located close together. The dates assigned to the sites range from approximately 9,500 to about 150 years ago. The numbers and distribution of archaeological desert tortoise locations shown on the map are biased because large areas of the deserts have not been studied. Archaeological studies, for the most part, have been carried out only in areas where they have been mandated by federal, state, or local government regulations.

According to a number of ethnographers and from information gathered from various historical documents, many desert-dwelling groups ate desert tortoises (Fig. 2). Some groups, however, especially those that lived along the Lower Colorado and Gila rivers, e.g., the Mohave, reportedly had an aversion to tortoise meat (see citation 3 below for specific information). Tortoise meat has been described as delicious and delicate in flavor, similar to chicken, but somewhat coarser in texture and with slightly fewer calories than chicken.4 Early Euroamerican miners and traders also reportedly enjoyed tortoise meat.5, 6 Tortoises were prepared in a variety of ways including roasting over fire or within roasting pits and boiled in stews (see citation 3, page 1, for more information).

 

Native American tribal territories within the geographic range of the desert tortoise

Fig. 2. A map of tribal territories of Native American Indian groups in the United States in the general area of the geographic range of the desert tortoise. Symbols within each territory indicate the way(s) that desert tortoises were important to each group: ceremony/ritual, symbolism/myth, household utensils, medicine, and food. The map was compiled and adapted from Keys to Tribal Territories included in Volumes 8, 10, and 11 of the Handbook of North American Indians published by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Group boundaries were fluid in the past and the boundary lines here are only approximations. Information on the uses of tortoises was gathered from ethnographies of the various groups (i.e., information gathered in the early 20th century) except for the Serrano information which was derived from archaeological data. Ethnographic information is usually limited by many factors, including the types of questions asked, the knowledge and/or cooperation of the person questioned, and selectivity in groups represented.

Exactly how desert tortoises were found and captured during prehistoric times is not known. Our best historic account comes from a description of tortoise-hunting practices of the Seri Indians of northern mainland Mexico. Among the Seri, tortoises were sometimes lured out of burrows with water placed at the entrance to the burrows or were sometimes dragged out of their burrows with long hooks.7 Dogs were used to locate ranging tortoises and tortoise burrows.

It is likely that tortoises were taken at all seasons of the year. Tortoise burrows have a distinctive shape; when tortoises are within burrows, they can easily be seen and removed. Although tortoises are more active during the spring and summer than at other times, they occasionally leave their winter burrows when the weather is warm and moisture is available and could be taken then.

As Medicine

Tortoise shell was sometimes powdered and used to relieve stomach and urinary tract afflictions among the Yavapai.8

As Household Utensils

Tortoise shells were used for bowls, ladles, seed-parching containers, spoons for children, scoops for digging or removing soil, and pottery-making tools (see citation 3, page 1 for specific details). The bowl shape of the upper shell (carapace) made it an ideal container. The slight curvature and smoothness of carapace fragments made them useful for spoons, scoops, and smoothing tools.

As Ceremonial Items

Rattles made from tortoise or turtle shells were often used on ceremonial occasions. Although most commonly used in areas within the range of desert tortoises, the rattles were of great value and were traded to groups far beyond the range. The upper and lower shells usually were laced or otherwise fastened together, either stones or hard seeds were placed within the hollow interior, and openings were sealed, often with asphaltum. A number of fragmental specimens of rattles have been recovered from archaeological sites. One ethnographic Cahuilla specimen, probably made in the early part of the 20th century, is in the collections of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (Fig. 3).

 

 

Fig. 3. Cahuilla Tortoise or Turtle Shell Rattle: shells (carapace and plastron) held together with copper wire; cotton twine-wrapped wooden handle; shell attached to handle with rawhide strips. Probably made in the 1940’s and purchased for the collections of the Palm Springs Desert Museum in 1961 or 1962. The rattle is about 29 cm (11.4 in) long, including the handle; the shell is 13 x 9 cm (5 x 3.5 in).

A collection of animal bones from an archaeological site at Joshua Tree National Park, interpreted as that of the cremation of an important person sometime in the last 1,000 years, contained 36 burned tortoise scapulae (shoulder blades). The unusual occurrence suggests that the tortoise bones were strung as a necklace, used as gaming or divining pieces or used for other ornamental or ritual purposes.9

Ancient Mesoamerican texts (codices) and architectural decorative motifs show representations of tortoise or turtle shells used as ceremonial vessels, rattles, drums, and as ceremonial garb.

 

TORTOISES IN SYMBOLISM AND MYTH

The unique characteristics of tortoises, sharply contrasting with those of other animals–their physical form, long life, relatively slow pace of travel, and other behaviors–contributed to their symbolic importance. Tortoise or turtle motifs and themes in Native American design and oral tradition suggest that spiritual values and symbolic significance were attached to the animals.

Tortoise/turtle figures in Indian rock art are not common, but they do exist. A number of tortoise/turtle petroglyphs (pecked designs on rock) are present in the Valley of Fire, Nevada (Fig. 4), and at a number of other Mojave Desert archaeological sites in California and Nevada. The interpretations of these depictions is uncertain; they may represent the importance of capturing tortoises for food or may be mythological, clan, or personal symbols.10 Tortoise or turtle designs are also incorporated in basketry (front cover) and sometimes used as decorative motifs on pottery. One group of Southern Paiute fed tortoise, chuckwalla, and rabbit meat to young eagles, captured as hatchlings and raised specifically for ceremonial purposes.

 

 

Fig. 4. Rock art motifs representing desert tortoises. Both of these petroglyphs are pecked into red sandstone outcrops in the Valley of Fire, Nevada. They are near archaeological sites where abundant fragments of desert tortoises indicate that the reptile was an important food source in earlier times. The tortoise petroglyph on the left is approximately 11 x 9 cm (4.3 x 3.5 in); note the characteristic posture of the legs. The tortoise petroglyph on the right is somewhat weathered so that the outlines are indistinct, but it is particularly interesting because the large dots probably represent the scutes covering the shell of the desert tortoise; this figure is about 22 x 19 cm (9 x 7.5 in).

Among the Chemehuevi, the “turtle” was a symbol of the spirit of the people and had an aura of sacredness. In one Chemehuevi myth, reported by ethnographer Carobeth Laird, “Turtle” accepted inevitable doom and died with great dignity. The animal expressed the Chemehuevi ideal: enduring patience, stamina for survival, and courage in hopeless situations.12 In Cahita Indian myth, the tortoise/turtle is portrayed as a semi-villain13; in Yavapai myth as a stranger (see citation 8, page 4, for details). A Mohave “song” tells the tale of an ancestral westward journey toward the Chemehuevi, a group that ate turtle.14 One Paiute coyote tale known as “Iron-Clothes” tells how the “land turtle” came to be used as food and how it was prepared and eaten.15

Tortoise/turtle symbolism in a wide range of cultures often incorporates themes such as long or eternal life, revered old age, and the tortoise/turtle shell as a foundation for or form of the earth in creation stories. For example, the Mayan calendrical system was sometimes represented as a segmented wheel, and tortoises or turtles, with their circular form and marginal scutes, were an obvious symbol of the passage of time in the world. Ritual self-inflicted bloodletting occurred at the end of certain Mayan time periods and turtle or tortoise, motif vessels are often depicted as being associated with this ritual.16, 17 Perhaps the importance of the tortoise/turtle as a symbol of the passage of time is the reason why the Mayan cosmology includes a constellation called the “turtle” (the same as we know as Orion, the hunter).18, 19

 

SUMMARY

Desert tortoises were important, both economically and ideologically, to the early peoples of the western deserts. Tortoises were available over a wide area and on a year-round basis. Although eating tortoise was “taboo” in a few groups, those same groups incorporated tortoise/turtle symbols in their art and mythology. Desert tortoises, along with rabbits, hares, and bighorn sheep, contributed to the protein portions of the diets of the majority of the prehistoric peoples of the area. The shells of desert tortoises were suitable for many utilitarian purposes, both in the household and for special ceremonial occasions.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
G. Dicken Everson gathered a large proportion of the information on mythology and symbolism. Kathy Clewell, Museum Registrar at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, loaned photographs of the artifacts in the museum’s collections. Many archaeologists and faunal analysts in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah shared their own data. The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee provided funds for the art work by Spring Warren. Kristin Berry assisted with editing and Carolyn Kameen assisted with word processing and format.

 

RECOMMENDED READINGS
Connolly, C., and N. Eckert. 1969. The archaeological significance of desert tortoise. Nevada State Museum Anthropological Paper No. 14: 80-92.

D’Azevedo, W. (ed.). 1986. Handbook of North American Indians.- Great Basin. Volume 11.Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Douglas, C. L., D. L. Jenkins, and C. N. Warren. 1988. Spatial and temporal variability in faunal remains from four Lake Mojave-Pinto Period sites in the Mojave Desert. In: J. A- Willig, C. M. Aikens, and J. L. Fagan (eds.), Early Human Occupation in Far Western North America: the Clovis-Archaic Interface. Nevada State Museum Anthropological Papers No. 21: 131-144.

Ebling, W. 1986. Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Felger, R., M. Moser, and E. W. Moser. 1981. The desert tortoise in Seri Indian culture. Pp. 113-120 in: K A- Hashagen (ed.), Proceedings of the 1981 Desert Tortoise Council Symposium. Long Beach, California.

Heizer, R. F. (ed.). 1978. Handbook of North American Indians: California. Volume 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Morafka, D. J., and C. J. McCoy (eds.). 1988. The ecogeography of the Mexican bolson tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus): Derivation of its endangered status and recommendations for its conservation, Annals of the Carnegie Museum 57 (1). Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Ortiz, A. (ed.). 1983. Handbook of North American Indians.- Southwest. Volume 10. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Schneider, J. S., and G. D. Everson. 1989. The desert tortoise (Xerobates agassizii) in the prehistory of the southwestern Great Basin. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 11(2):175-202.

Woodbury, A- M., and R. Hardy. 1948. Studies of the desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii. Ecological Monographs 18:145-200.
Footnotes

1 Stebbins, R. C. 1966. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin.

2 Douglas, C. L., D. L. Jenkins, and C. N. Warren. 1988. Spatial and temporal variability in faunal remains from four Lake Mojave-Pinto Period sites in the Mojave Desert. Pp. 131-144 in: J. A. Willig, C. M. Aikens, and J. L. Fagan (eds.), Early Human Occupation in Far Western North America: the Clovis-Archaic Interface. Nevada State Museum Anthropological Papers No. 21.

3 Schneider, J. S. and G. D. Everson. 1989. The desert tortoise (Xerobates agassizii) in the prehistory of the southwestern Great Basin and adjacent areas. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 11(2):175-202.

4 Connolly, C. and N. Eckert. 1969. The archaeological significance of the desert tortoise. Nevada State Museum Anthropological Papers No. 14:80-92.

5 Fairchild, M. D. 1933. A trip to the Colorado mines in 1862. California Historical Society Quarterly 12:11-17.

6 Pepper, C. 1963. The truth about the tortoise. Desert Magazine 26(10):10-11.

7 Felger, R., M. Moser, and E. W. Moser. 1981. The desert tortoise in Seri Indian culture. Pp. 113-120 in: K. A. Hashagen (ed.), Proceedings of the 1981 Desert Tortoise Council Symposium. Long Beach, California.

8 Gifford, E. W. 1936. The Northeastern and Western Yavapai. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 34(4).

9 Goodman, J. D. II. 1992. Vertebrate faunal remains from the Campbell Collection. P. 9-4 in: A- B. Schroth (ed.), Cremations and Associated Artifacts from the Campbell Collection; Joshua Tree National Monument. Report on file at the National Park Service, Western Region.

10 Green, E. M. 1987. A Cultural Ecological Approach to the Rock Art of Southern Nevada. Master’s Thesis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

11 Kelly, I. T. Unpublished manuscript. Notebook of the Las Vegas Band, Southern Paige Field Notes. Berkeley: University of California Archives No. 138 2m. Anthropology Document 18 (UCARC microfilm CU 23.1, frames 18-24, 18-93).

12 Laird, C. 1976. The Chemehuevis. Banning, California: Malki Museum Press.

13 Beals, R. 1945. The Contemporary Culture of the Cahita Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 142.

14 Kroeber, A- L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin No. 78.

15 Sapir, E. 1930. Texts of the Kaibab Paiutes and Uintah Utes. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 65(2).

16 Seler, E. 1939. Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur Amerikanischen Sprach – und Alterhumskunde, Vol. 4. Unpublished English translation under the direction of Charles P. Bowditch. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

17 Taube, K A, 1988. A prehistoric Maya Katun Wheel. Journal of Anthropological Research 44(2):183-203.

18 Lounsbury, F. 1982. Astronomical knowledge and its uses at Bonompak, Mexico. Pp. 143-168 in: A.F. Aveni (ed.), Archaeoastronomy in the New World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

19 Freidel, D., L. Schele, and J. Parker. Maya Cosmos. Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow Co., Inc.

THE DESERT TORTOISE AND UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE

THE DESERT TORTOISE
AND UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE

by

Elliot Jacobson, D.V.M., Ph.D.

University of Florida, Gainesville
Florida 32510, USA

A Special Report
prepared for the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.

rev. August 1992

THE DESERT TORTOISE AND UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE

BACKGROUND — UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE IN CAPTIVE TORTOISES

A disease characterized by a mild to severe nasal discharge has been seen for many years in captive tortoises in Europe, England, and the United States. Although a complete list of the number of species of tortoises known to develop this disease is unavailable, it would be fair to say that until proven otherwise, all species of tortoises should be considered susceptible. In England, this disease is commonly seen in Greek (Testudo graeca) and Hermann’s (T. hermanni) tortoises.1 The disease has also been seen in free-ranging gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus) in Florida (Jacobson, pers. comm.). At the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, University of Florida, species of tortoises presented with nasal discharge include Greek tortoises, leopard tortoises Geochelone pardalis), radiated tortoises (Geochelone radiata), Indian star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) and gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus). The disease has also been commonly seen in captive desert tortoises (Gopherus [=Xerobates] agassizii).2

Until 1990-1991, attempts at demonstrating or incriminating a casual agent were unsuccessful. Because of negative findings and the failure to incriminate a specific bacteria, a virus was considered as a possible cause.3 In studies conducted on captive desert tortoises, a bacterial organism, Pasteurella testudinis, was isolated and incriminated as a possible cause.4 However, P. testudinis, has also been isolated from healthy tortoises and the significance of this organism remains unknown.

THE APPEARANCE OF UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE IN WILD TORTOISE POPULATIONS

In the 1970’s desert tortoises with signs of the disease were observed on the Beaver Dam Slope of Utah, a site where many captive tortoises were being released. In 1988, desert tortoises at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (DTNA), Kern County, California were seen with clinical signs of illness similar to that of captive desert tortoises. Signs included a mucopurulent discharge from the nares, puffy eyelids, eyes recessed into the orbits, and dullness to the skin and scutes. Based upon these clinical signs, Upper Respiratory Disease Syndrome (URDS) was used to characterize this syndrome.

Surveys of the DTNA in 1989 and 1990 revealed that many tortoises were ill with the disease, and shells of many tortoises indicated a major die-off was underway. Research on long-term study plots with marked tortoises showed that more than 70% of adult tortoises died between 1988 and 1992 (Kristin Berry, pers. comm.). Other surveys indicated that free-ranging desert tortoises with URDS also widespread in the western Mojave Desert of California, around Las Vegas Valley in Nevada, on the Beaver Dam Slope of Utah/Arizona, and sporadically in low numbers in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

RESEARCH ON THE CAUSES OF UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE

In May 1989, with a contract from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, we initiated studies on desert tortoises ill with URDS in an attempt to elucidate the responsible pathogens. During the course of these studies, the pathology of the disease was better understood and findings indicated that the upper respiratory tract was the major site of involvement.5 Based on these findings the disease was determined to be a chronic upper respiratory tract disease and the acronym URTD was used. Today, URTD more appropriately designates this illness and should replace URDS.

Microbiologic investigations with URTD failed to incriminate a virus as a potential causal agent. Pasteurella testudinis was isolated from most of the ill tortoises examined and a previously unidentified Mycoplasma was also isolated from ill tortoises.5 Electron microscopic studies confirmed the presence of Mycoplasma on the surface membranes of the upper respiratory tract of desert tortoises ill with URTD.

In 1992, research was conducted on transmission of the disease. The findings support the contention that Mycoplasma is the most likely cause of URTD. Koch’s postulates have been fulfilled and a causal relationship between Mycoplasma and URTD has been established. Still, Pasteurella and other bacteria may affect the severity of the disease.

A serologic (blood) test has been developed at the University of Florida to determine exposure status of tortoises to Mycoplasma. Preliminary studies are very promising in that this test may ultimately be useful in assessing condition of tortoises.

Predisposing factors such as poor nutrition (resulting from habitat degradation), drought, and release of captive desert tortoises ill with URTD into the wild are also more than likely involved. The whole issue of release of ill pet desert tortoises needs to be publicized, because this practice should not continue. Transmission studies have clearly demonstrated the infectious nature of URTD. Thus, it is safe to assume that captive ill tortoises can transmit this disease to both captive and free-ranging clinically healthy tortoises.

TREATMENT OF UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE

Until recently, no antibiotics or combination of antibiotics have been efficacious for treating tortoises ill with URTD. With evidence that Mycoplasma is the etiologic agent of URTD and that Pasteurella testudinis and other gram negative bacteria may contribute to the severity of the disease, antibiotic therapy with enrofloxacin (Baytril, Mobay Corp., Shawnee, Kansas) at 5 mg/kg of body weight every other day for IO treatments, is considered the therapy of choice. Additionally, injectable enrofloxacin should be diluted 1:10 in sterile saline and a small quantity (up to 0.5 cc) should be flushed up both nares of the affected tortoise utilizing a syringe and attached catheter of appropriate diameter. Flushing should be continued daily for 1 month (at least until the rhinitis has abated). Since enrofloxacin is very irritating to the mucous membranes surrounding the eyes, it is important to avoid contact of enrofloxacin with those tissues. It is important to maintain tortoises at an optimum environmental temperature during the course of treatment. While antibiotic therapy may result in clinical improvement and complete regression of clinical signs, this does not mean that this tortoise will be free of disease thereafter. Turtles may remain carriers of Mycoplasma for life with recurrence of the disease at some point in time in the future.

Results of clinical trials with these new drugs and drug combinations for treating tortoises ill with URTD are extremely promising for captive tortoises. Unfortunately the situation for ill free-ranging tortoises in not as promising. Since this disease more than likely is multifactorial, schemes for managing URTD in free-ranging populations are going to be difficult to develop and implement. Minimally tortoise hobbyists and veterinarians can make a major contribution by getting the word out that captive tortoises should not be released to the wild. More than likely this practice has contributed to the spread of URTD in wild populations of desert tortoises.

SUMMARY

The following points should be remembered with regard to the desert tortoise and URTD:

  1. URTD is a chronic infectious disease affecting not only the desert tortoise, but other tortoises as well.
  2. Scientific evidence supports the belief that Mycoplasma is the infectious agent responsible for URTD.
  3. Once infected with Mycoplasma, a tortoise may remain a carrier for life.
  4. URTD is a transmissible disease. Because of this, tortoises showing clinical signs of illness should be isolated from healthy tortoises.
  5. Different species of tortoises should not be kept together in captivity since foreign pathogens may be introduced into new hosts.
  6. Although antibiotic treatment may result in complete remission of clinical signs, tortoises may still develop the disease at a future date.
  7. III or formerly ill desert tortoises should never be released to the wild. Releases of captive tortoises may be responsible for disease outbreaks in the Mojave Desert.

Footnotes

1 Lawrence, K. and J. R. Needham. 1985. Rhinitis in long term Mediterranean tortoises (Testudo graeca and T. hermanni). Veterinary Record. 117:622-664.

2 Jackson, O. F., and J. R. Needham. 1983. Rhinitis and virus antibody titers in chelonians. Journal of Small Animal Practice. 24:31-36.

3 Snipes K. P., E. L. Biberstein, and M. E. Fowler. 1980. A Pasteurella sp. associated with respiratory disease in captive desert tortoises. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 177:804-807.

4 Snipes, K. P., and E. L. Biberstein. 1982. Pasteurella testudinis sp. nov.: a parasite of desert tortoises. International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology. 32:201-210.

5 Jacobson, E. R., J. M. Gaskin, M. B. Brown, R. K Harris, C. H. Gardiner, J. L. LaPointe, H. P. Adams, and C. Reggiardo. 1991. Chronic upper respiratory tract disease of free-ranging desert tortoises (Xerobates agassizii). Journal of Wildlife Diseases 27(2):296-316.

 

Prepared for the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.,
and U.S. Bureau of Land Management

EVIDENCE OF UNAUTHORIZED OFF-HIGHWAY VEHICLE ACTIVITY IN THE RAND MOUNTAINS AND FREMONT VALLEY, KERN COUNTY CALIFORNIA

EVIDENCE OF UNAUTHORIZED OFF-HIGHWAY VEHICLE ACTIVITY IN THE RAND MOUNTAINS AND FREMONT VALLEY, KERN COUNTY CALIFORNIA
The following Special Report is an excerpt of a study commissioned by the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc. and prepared
by
Gilbert 0. Goodlett and Glenn C. Goodlett
The study was completed in spring, 1991.
 

EVIDENCE OF UNAUTHORIZED OFF-HIGHWAY VEHICLE ACTIVITY IN THE RAND MOUNTAINS AND FREMONT VALLEY, KERN COUNTY CALIFORNIA

 

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

At the request of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, EnviroPlus Consulting undertook a project to analyze unauthorized off-highway vehicle (OHV) activity in the Rand Mountains and Fremont Valley of eastern Kern County, California. The area is adjacent to the northeastern part of the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (DTNA) and Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), contains the western Rand Mountain Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), and has significant habitat for the desert tortoise (U.S. Bureau of Land Management 1980; Sievers et al. 1988).

 Specific objectives of the study included the following:

  1. Investigate the degree of OHV impact on desert tortoise habitat in the study area with specific emphasis on those impacts that have occurred since the area was reopened to public use on November 21, 1990.
  2. Determine the degree to which public use of the land, most of which is OHV activity, conforms with the publicly announced BLM policies.
  3. If significant vehicle activity is occurring and if the vehicle use does not conform to BLM policies, identify the area of use.
  4. Determine if relationships exist between open routes and unauthorized activity.

BACKGROUND

The desert tortoise (Gopherus [Xerobates] agassizii) was listed by the State of California in June 1989 as a threatened species. A few months later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as endangered under an emergency rule, then followed with a permanent listing as threatened on April 4, 1990. The tortoise was listed because of rapidly declining populations, habitat loss and fragmentation. The sources for population losses include vandalism, vehicle kills, collections, disease, and excessive raven predation. For habitat damage and loss, the causes are multifold.

Declines in tortoise populations are well-documented for the western Mojave desert (Berry, 1990). Vandalism, damage to habitat from sheep grazing and off-highway vehicles (OHV), upper respiratory tract disease (URTD), and ravens are particularly critical issues in the Rand Mountains and Fremont Valley.

In 1989 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) placed a significant portion of public land in the Rand Mountains and Fremont Valley under a temporary emergency quarantine and road closure to provide increased protection for the desert tortoise and its habitat (U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1989). The area under quarantine included the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTNA) and Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and West Rand Mountains ACEC. All human activities, except those administratively authorized, were excluded from the DTNA and West Rand Mountains ACEC.

The protective action was lifted on November 21, 1990 (U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1990). According to a BLM media release, “Approximately 150 miles of roads will be opened in the area to provide access. Open routes will be signed with a brown post indicating their open status. Unmarked routes and trails and those marked with a red ‘closed’ post may not be used by motorized vehicles.” This is a “…75 percent reduction in the existing routes.” Further, “… camping will be allowed within 100 feet of a road in previously disturbed areas only.”

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

Field surveys were conducted December 13-15, 1990 and January 20, 1991. Methods used to evaluate OHV impacts included: driving 46.2 miles of open routes and recording the unauthorized tracks and trails which crossed the open routes; walking 37 transacts, each of which was 500-feet long, perpendicular to open routes and recording OHV impacts; raking closed routes and rechecking them 34 days later for unauthorized vehicle use; and incidental observations.

A total of 287 unauthorized (unmarked or closed) trails with at least five tracks per trail were observed to cross 46.2 miles of surveyed open routes. Of these, 93% of trails were unmarked, and the remaining 7% were marked closed. The signed, closed routes represent a small fraction of the total number of trails being used by OHV enthusiasts.

On each of the 37 transacts, a mean of 27 unauthorized tracks were found, an average of one track every 20 feet. Impacts were found to vary in an inverse proportion to its distance from an open route. Near the edge of an open route (0-20 feet), an average of 2.70 OHV impacts (tracks and trails) per 20 linear feet were found. Further from the trail impacts tapered off to an average of 0.87 per 20 linear feet.

Twenty-one signed, closed routes were raked on December 15, 1991. Five of the signs marking these trails had been vandalized. When 16 of the trails were rechecked 34 days later, 206 new OHV tracks were found with a mean of 13 tracks per closed route.

Unauthorized OHV activity was observed during both survey periods. In one instance, group of about eight OHV riders were observed riding on unmarked trails. In another instance truck and motorcycle were observed riding on a signed, closed route.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) policies limiting vehicle use to signed, open routes are ineffective. Intensive, negative impacts to desert tortoise habitat are occurring as a result. Only a small fraction of unauthorized trails (7%) are marked as closed. Even on the trails marked as closed, unauthorized use is continuing. Results from 37 transacts suggest that unauthorized OHV impacts are related to open routes with these impacts decreasing as the distance from the open route increased.

LEVELS OF UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLE USE

BLM instructions governing OHV activities are not being heeded. As a result, significant degradation of tortoise habitat is occurring. Unauthorized use is astoundingly high. From trail and track mapping, an average of 47 unauthorized tracks per linear mile was found. This estimate is low since single tracks not associated with a trail and trails with fewer than 5 tracks were not recorded. A more accurate estimate of unauthorized tracks is derived from the data set of 37 transacts. On the average, one unauthorized track was encountered every 20 linear feet. This represents an intensive, negative impact to the habitat of a federally listed species.

Transect data also reveal a relationship between open routes and unauthorized OHV impacts. Impacts are highest close to the open route, suggesting that the presence of an open route may induce negative impacts for substantial distances from the route edge. Even at 500 feet from an open route, unauthorized tracks were observed at a rate of almost one per 20 linear feet. These impacts are apparently difficult to control.

Marking routes as “closed” is an ineffective measure against trespassing. The contrary seems to be the case. Five of twenty-one signs on closed routes were vandalized. The degree of trespassing is intensive. An average of 11 tracks were found per closed route.

REFERENCES

Berry, K. H. 1990. The Status of the Desert Tortoise in California. Draft Report from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Riverside, California, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, Oregon.

Sievers, A., J. B. Aardahl, K. H. Berry, B. L. Burge, L. D. Foreman, G. E. Moncsko, and J. St. Amant. 1988. Recommendations for Management of the Desert Tortoise in the California Desert. California Desert District, Riverside, California, 55 pp. with Appendices.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 1980. The California Desert Conservation Area Plan. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Riverside, California. 173 pp.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 1989. U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Temporary emergency quarantine in the Desert Tortoise Natural Area and western Rand Mountain Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Federal Register 54(181).

U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 1990. Temporary emergency quarantine in the Desert Tortoise Natural Area and West Rand Mountains Area of the Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC); Ridgecrest Resource Area, Kern County, California. Federal Register 55(197): 41392-41393.

OHV Grants News Release 2011

Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.

News Release

For Immediate Release: March 8, 2011

Contact: Mary Kotschwar (951-683-3872) or dtpc@pacbell.net

THE DTPC INVITES PUBLIC COMMENTS ON OHV GRANT APPLICATION

The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee (DTPC) invites public comments on its draft

application to the California State Parks Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation

(OHMVR) Division.

The DTPC is requesting approximately $29,122 from the OHMVR Division for an

education project. If funded, the DTPC will increase educational outreach to OHV

recreationists through the development and implementation of an integrated

environmental education and responsible recreation program. The program would

promote an outdoor ethic and teach responsible recreation guidelines especially relevant

for OHV recreation in the Mojave Desert through organizing events and providing

educational materials at the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area, Kern County,

California, and throughout the surrounding region. Funds would be used in 2011 and

2012.

Anyone interested can review the grant application, along with those from other agencies,

local governments, and non-profits, on-line at www.ohv.parks.ca.gov . The commenting

period is open from Tuesday, March 8, 2011 until Monday, April 4, 2011. Comments

should be sent directly to the OHMVR Division at ohvinfo@parks.ca.gov and to the

DTPC at dtpc@pacbell.net. Late comments will be forwarded to the division separately.

Final grant applications are due May 2, 2011.

For additional information on the application contact Mary Kotschwar, Preserve Manager

and Conservation Coordinator at (951) 683-3872, or by e-mail at dtpc@pacbell.net.

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OHV Grant News Release 2010

Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.
News Release
For Immediate Release: February 10, 2010
Contact: Melissa Nicholson (951-683-3872) or dtpc@pacbell.net
THE DTPC INVITES PUBLIC COMMENTS ON OHV GRANT APPLICATION
The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee (DTPC) invites public comments on its draft
application to the California’s Off Highway Motorized Vehicle Recreation (OHMVR)
Division.
The DTPC is requesting funding from the OHMVR Division for three projects. The first
is a ground operations project that involves the installation of desert tortoise exclusion
fencing along high risk areas of the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area’s (DTNA)
boundary fence. The second project will help fund habitat improvements on 17.5 acres of
disturbed land at Camp “C”. The third project, which focuses on education, will help
fund the development and installation of a new interpretive kiosk at the Interpretive
Center of the DTNA. Funds would be used in 2010 and 2011.
Anyone interested can review the grant application, along with those from other agencies,
local governments, and non-profits, on-line at www.ohv.parks.ca.gov. The commenting
period is open from Tuesday March 2, 2010 until Monday, April 5, 2010. Comments
should be sent directly to the OHMVR Division at ohvinfo@parks.ca.gov and to the
DTPC at dtpc@pacbell.net. Late comments will be forwarded to the division separately.
The DTPC applied for OHVMR funds to help operate the DTNA and increase the safety
of the preserve for the benefit of the desert tortoise, other wildlife within the DTNA, and
the visitors recreating in the area, approximately 66% of whom are OHV riders.
Additional information on the application is available by contacting Melissa Nicholson,
Preserve Manager and Office Administrator at (951) 683-3872, or by e-mail at
dtpc@pacbell.net.
______________________________________________________________________
Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc. 4067 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, CA 92501

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OHV Grant News Release

Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.
News Release
For Immediate Release: March 15, 2009
Contact: Melissa Nicholson (951-683-3872) or dtpc@pacbell.net
THE DTPC INVITES PUBLIC COMMENTS ON OHV GRANT APPLICATION
The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee (DTPC) invites public comments on its draft application to the California’s Off Highway Motorized Vehicle Recreation (OHMVR) Division.
The DTPC is requesting approximately $90,000 in funding to be used for two ground operation projects. The first project involves the installation of desert tortoise exclusion fencing along high risk areas of the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area’s (DTNA) boundary fence. The second project involves the purchase and installation of signs along the existing boundary of the DTNA, the purchase of signs for installation at important highway intersections, and development and installation of educational signs at the Interpretive Center of the DTNA. Funds would be used in 2010.
Comments should be sent to the DTPC, 4067 Mission Inn Avenue, Riverside, California 92501, Attention: OHV Grants. Comments must be received by Monday, April 6, 2009 to be included with the grant request to the OHMVR Division. Late comments will be forwarded to the division separately.
Anyone interested can review the grant application, along with those from other agencies, local governments, and non-profits, on-line at www.ohv.parks.ca.gov. Information on the application is available by contacting Melissa Nicholson, Preserve Manager and Office Administrator at (951) 683-3872, or by e-mail at dtpc@pacbell.net.
The DTPC applied for OHVMR funds to help operate the DTNA and increase the safety of the preserve for the benefit of the desert tortoise, other wildlife within the DTNA, and the visitors recreating in the area, approximately 50% of whom are OHV riders.
________________________________________________________________________
Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc. 4067 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, CA 92501

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BLM Solar Energy PEIS

Statement from the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc. for the
Bureau of Land Management Solar Energy PEIS
Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc., 4067 Mission Inn Avenue, Riverside, CA 92501
I am writing on behalf of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc. (Committee) to
make public comment and participate in the scoping process for the development of a
programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for solar energy development.
The Committee is a non-profit organization formed in 1974 to promote the welfare of the
desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in its native wild state. Committee members share a
deep concern for the continued preservation of the desert tortoise and its habitat in the
southwestern deserts. Committee activities include: establishing desert tortoise preserves
by the processes of land acquisition and mitigation, developing and implementing
management programs for desert tortoise preserves and adjacent areas, and education and
research.
The Committee urges the Bureau of Land Management to develop strong environmental
guidelines for utility-scale solar energy development in Arizona, California, Colorado,
New Mexico, Nevada and Utah that will ensure that our wildlife and wild lands are
protected for future generations. The Committee would like to draw the BLM’s attention
to a variety of factors that are essential for evaluating the placement of large-scale solar
projects.
• The Mojave Desert habitat
Desert habitats are fragile, water-stressed ecosystems that have already been
substantially degraded through a variety of human activities. Renewable energy
placement within deserts must be ecologically appropriate. Green energy and
environmental conservation can and should work together. Environmental
considerations must be fully integrated into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
decision-making process from the onset by attaching stringent screening criteria to
the placement of sites and transmission lines.
• The Mojave Desert is a rich wildlife resource
Renewable energy should seek to altogether avoid placement on lands that have rich
wildlife resources such as: National Parks, Desert Wildlife Management Areas,
Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern
(ACECs), and areas that provide habitat for sensitive, threatened, or endangered
species. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the California Endangered Species
Act were enacted to safeguard our biological resources. These laws should be
respected and serve as guidelines for the environmentally sound implementation of
solar energy projects.
• Water supply
Water supplies are limited in the Mojave Desert and California is suffering the effects
of a statewide drought. In light of these facts, the California Energy Commission
Solar PEIS Comments submitted on behalf of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.
November 2008
(CEC) has stated that solar projects should not be wet cooled unless they make a
showing of having wastewater of a certain minimum dissolved solids for that
purpose. This policy should be echoed by the BLM when approving solar projects.
Projects where overall water use is not compatible with available water supply or
water use interferes with existing biological resources should not be approved.
• Creation of new roads
Large-scale solar projects involve the creation of new access roads through areas of
previously undisturbed habitat. New roads create the risk of road mortality for many
threatened and sensitive species (i.e. the desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel).
The BLM should implement a desert tortoise proof fencing requirement along roads
created by all projects approved within the range of the state and federally listed
desert tortoise. New roads also increase the likelihood of invasive plant species
proliferation throughout the Mojave. Invasive weeds not only compete with native
species for limited resources, they also have less nutritional content for foraging
animals than the native flora. Invasive plants increase the risk of dangerous wildfires
starting and spreading in the desert. Additionally, roads fragment habitat and could
disrupt existing animal populations. Roads also create access that would be used by
others, such as off-road vehicle recreationists, and leads to habitat degradation.
• Human subsidized predators
New roads, vehicular traffic, and human activity associated with the construction,
maintenance, and daily operations of large-scale solar projects will attract human
subsidized predators such as ravens and coyotes. Both of the aforementioned species
are known to prey on the desert tortoise. Ravens feed on young desert tortoises and
one pair of ravens can eliminate all immature desert tortoises for several square miles.
Coyotes can successfully eat large, fully mature tortoises. The ongoing drought has
put increasing pressure on coyotes’ natural prey items (i.e. rodents and rabbits). As a
result coyotes have turned to desert tortoises as a supplemental food source. The
BLM should consider the risk associated with an influx of human subsidized
predators when approving projects, especially those that plan on building in critical
habitat. The BLM should not allow projects in critical habitat. By definition it is
habitat critical to the survival and recovery of the species.
• Habitat degradation
It has been 2 years since the BLM approved and signed the Record of Decision for
the final version of its West Mojave Management Plan. Since that time the agency
has failed to fully implement the management actions and protective measures for the
desert tortoise and other species of concern. Large energy developments will add yet
more strain to this already impoverished ecosystem making remaining habitats even
more vital to the continued existence of desert tortoise and other rare species. Energy
developments must be required to fully fund, in advance, the necessary mitigations
and protections for desert tortoises and other sensitive species.
• Abundance and distribution of selected elements
Solar PEIS Comments submitted on behalf of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, Inc.
November 2008
A baseline survey was conducted to identify potential source toxicants in natural and
anthropogenically-altered habitats of the desert tortoise. Several soil and plant
anomalies were discovered that were clearly anthropogenic and the effects of the
anomalies were found to have spread as far as 15 km outward from the disturbance
source. Surface contaminants are spread and redistributed by wind, vehicles, and
rainfall. The study found a link between vehicle exhaust and soil surface lead
contamination. High levels of potentially lethal arsenic were found in plant samples
that desert tortoises are known to consume. Further study is needed to determine the
distribution and abundance of elements in plants on which the desert tortoise forages
and the roles of dust and systemic uptake. It is important that the BLM considers the
increase of toxicants in the environment, the increased spread of toxicants throughout
the environment, and the direction toxicants will be dispersed when considering
specific projects for approval.
• Land Mitigation
Population growth, military expansion, and large-scale energy projects continue to
spread throughout the Mojave Desert. As this process continues there are fewer tracts
of suitable, contiguous habitat available for the appropriate mitigation for the desert
tortoise and the Mohave ground squirrel. The BLM needs to be cognizant of these
issues, most especially when being asked to consider opening protected lands by
project proponents. The DTPC will be very interested in how the BLM will propose
to mitigate the effects of large scale energy developments.
• Translocation
The BLM should carefully observe the on-going, large-scale translocation project that
resulted from the recent Ft. Irwin expansion. On July 2, 2008 the Center for
Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors filed suit in federal court over the
relocation of hundreds of desert tortoises. The host of problems associated with the
Ft. Irwin translocation project serves as a preview for the future of the Mojave if
large-scale solar prospectors are allowed access to critical habitats. The Desert
Tortoise Preserve Committee’s stance is that large-scale translocation should be
avoided and only used as a last resort.
More specifically the Committee urges the BLM to incorporate landscape-level and
cumulative analysis into its application review process. Proposed development sites
do not exist in isolation. In an effort to monitor overall health of our sensitive desert
ecosystems, the BLM should consider existing and foreseeable projects and
environmental problems when reviewing all applications.
The Committee would like to thank the BLM for this opportunity to comment and
participate in the scoping process for the development of a programmatic
environmental impact statement for solar energy development. Please send additional
information by e-mail to dtpc@pacbell.

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Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
11/13/2007
CONTACT: Melissa Nicholson, Preserve Manager/Office Administrator
tel. (951) 683-3872
E-mail: dtpc@pacbell.net
web site: tortoise-tracks.org

Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee Appoints Melissa Nicholson as the Preserve Manager/Office Administrator

Riverside, Calif., November 9, 2007– The Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee (DTPC) today announced that Melissa Nicholson was appointed as its Preserve Manger/Office Administrator effective November 5, 2007.   Ms. Nicholson brings 5 years experience in wildlife monitoring and environmental management of threatened and endangered reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.

“We are very pleased to have a new employee, Melissa Nicholson,” said Dr. Kristin Berry, of the DTPC and Board of Trustees.  Melissa is our new Office Administrator and Preserve Manager. Melissa graduated with a BS in Zoology and Environmental Biology from Michigan State University and earned a MS degree in Biology from the University of Texas at Tyler in 2007.  She has experience working with many different animal species from spiders to the three-toed box turtle, loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles, and gopher tortoises. She has taught age groups from children through adults.  She was a teaching assistant at the university level for a variety of courses including anatomy and physiology, ecology, and ornithology. She taught at Camp Tyler, an outdoor science camp geared to educating 5th grade students in earth science, environmental awareness, and an appreciation for nature.   She has given presentations and lectures to groups ranging from the Boy Scouts of America to Women in Science.  She is a co-author on two publications with a third that is pending.  Melissa will be participating in many aspects of the daily operations of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee and is very excited to be part of our conservation efforts.  You can reach Melissa at (951)-683-3872 or dtpc@pacbell.net.

“Melissa combines excellent wildlife biology and communication skills with hands on field experience, and has a strong desire to focus on conservation of the desert tortoises and the habitat in which it lives.  She will assist the committee in our on going recovery efforts and continued success in managing land acquisitions and restoring habitat in the Mojave and Sonoran desert,” said Stephanie Pappas, of DTPC and 1st Vice President.

About DTPC

DTPC is a leader in protecting the threatened desert tortoise and its ecosystem by preserving habitat in California’s Mojave and Sonoran deserts, and by fostering research and education.  The DTPC was established in 1974 to conserve and manage populations and habitat for the desert tortoise, now a federally-and state-listed threatened species.  The DTPC is a non-profit corporation managed by a Board of Trustees.  The organization has many functions, all of which are focused on recovery efforts for the tortoise, the ecosystems it occupies, and other plants and animals in Mojave and Colorado desert ecosystems.  The Mohave ground squirrel and more recently, the burrowing owl, are also animals of concern.

The Committee worked with the BLM to establish the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTRNA) in Kern County, California in 1974.  In 1980 the designated boundary of this preserve was 39.5 square miles of prime habitat that historically supported one of the highest tortoise population densities. In 2002, the DTPC launched a major initiative to expand the DTNA to include prime tortoise habitat to the west, southeast and east, adding an additional 4,500 acres of habitat home to the desert tortoise and other imperiled wildlife such as the Mohave ground squirrel.  In April of 2007, the DTPC achieved a long-term objective of fencing a “keyhole” along the eastern boundary of the DTRNA. The fence which is one linear mile, was completed in August 2007, demonstrating the Committee’s continued efforts to restore habitat for the desert tortoise.