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An uncertain future for a population of desert tortoises experiencing human impacts

March 4, 2020

We evaluated the status of a population of Mojave Desert Tortoises (Gopherus agassizii), a threatened species, in the El Paso Mountains of the northwestern Mojave Desert in California, USA. The study area lies north of and adjacent to a designated critical habitat unit for the species, is adjacent to a state park, and is a short distance from the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area. We randomly sampled 373 1-ha plots from a 239.1-km2 area in the mountain range to determine demographic attributes of the population, vegetation associations, predator presence, and human uses. Live and dead G. agassizii and sign (burrows, scats, tracks) occurred on 35.7% of plots. Densities of adults were higher than in adjacent critical habitat, and threats (traumatic injuries, infectious and other diseases) were similar to those reported elsewhere in the geographic range. Signs of human use were evident on 98.4% of plots. We used a multimodel approach to determine distribution of G. agassizii in relation to vegetation, anthropogenic, and predator variables. Vegetation, predators, trash, mining activity, and vehicles were important factors affecting the distribution and intensity of tortoise sign. We concluded that this population is in a downward trend, like other populations in the western Mojave Desert. The high death rate of adults, low population density, high human visitor use, and ongoing decline in the adjacent critical habitat unit indicate that a viable population is unlikely to persist in the study area. The future for the population found in the El Paso Mountains might depend on survival in the adjacent roadless El Paso Mountains Wilderness Area.

Publication Year 2020
Title An uncertain future for a population of desert tortoises experiencing human impacts
DOI 10.1655/Herpetologica-D-18-00033
Authors Kristin H. Berry, Julie L. Yee, Lisa L. Lyren, Jeremy S Mack
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Herpetologica
Index ID 70208823
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center