Planning a Perfect Desert (Tortoise) Getaway

A desert tortoise is in safe hands during translocation.

A desert tortoise is in safe hands during translocation.

My boots are sitting in the hallway covered in dust. Not from lack of use, I might add. But following such an inspiring field experience in the Mojave Desert, where I released tortoises to the wild, it just seemed too soon to wipe away the dusty memories of my desert adventure.

If you work at a desk most of the time, like I do, you’ll understand that getting out into the field can be a rare and fleeting opportunity. Fortunately for me, my job takes me on walkabout to visit our field programs about once every couple of months. Each trip has a dedicated mission, from delivering vital field equipment to planning field operations alongside remotely based staff, and each trip has the added bonus of bringing me joy in connecting with the animals, people, and places where we work.

On this last trip, my trifold mission was to deliver a brand-new four-wheel drive truck to our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, assist in a long-planned translocation of desert tortoises to the Greater Trout Canyon area just west of Las Vegas, and take staffer Julie Marshall on a memorable professional training experience. Julie works diligently overseeing our Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, ensuring all our projects follow the highest animal welfare standards, and this trip would give her the golden opportunity to see our tortoise conservation efforts in action.

Julie Marshall radio tracks a desert tortoise.

Julie Marshall radio tracks a desert tortoise.

Our first day was spent with the staff at the Center, carefully preparing animals for their move to the wild. Each tortoise has undergone a meticulous health screening and testing over the past year to ensure its overall condition will not compromise its chances for survival. Carrying out the finishing touches, we attached radio transmitters to each of the 32 tortoises destined for freedom. The translocation effort serves two main purposes: population augmentation and research. The population of wild tortoises in the Greater Trout Canyon area has been in decline for several years. The translocated animals are expected to bolster the population and, at the very least, slow the decline in numbers. Research includes checking on the released tortoises at regular intervals to determine how they are adapting to their new environment.

Waking uncomfortably early at 4 a.m. the next day, we headed out to meet the staff, volunteers, and members of other agencies (NDOW, FWS, USGS), assisting in the translocation. After a briefing and some quick training in the use of handheld GPS units, we drove off in convoy with our precious cargo. As dawn was breaking, each tortoise received a subcutaneous injection of liquid to ensure proper hydration, and each person, carrying a tortoise in a tote, navigated to a target GPS location to make a “drop”. Fanning out across the desert landscape, our work was accomplished swiftly in the cool morning air, some tortoises remaining still until we left their sides, others trotting off into the near distance. We all left wondering, what next?

Our third and final day started just as uncomfortably early as day two and focused on finding out what next. While I caught up on center operations, Julie accompanied our field technicians to learn how to radio track tortoises. Hiking across the desert terrain following the beeping sound of an animal’s transmitter is tough work, but the payoff when you find an animal is exhilarating. After animals are translocated, they often make longer-range movements than normal in exploring their new environment, so it is key for us to follow them closely during their first few weeks of release so we don’t lose anybody.

I’m happy to report all tortoises were relocated, and I’m grateful that my job involves working with the dedicated members of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center team who are making conservation happen and who are all infinitely better morning people than I!

Allyson Walsh is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.