A Shell Game in Tortoise Count


Counting desert tortoises is harder than you might think. Although far from being fleet-footed, they blend in, they burrow, they hibernate.

But researchers say that if there was ever a year to determine how many of the imperiled species are left in the wilderness, this is it. Winter storms catered a buffet of grasses and wildflowers that should lure tortoises aboveground.

“If we don’t find tortoises this year, it will mean there aren’t tortoises left to find,” said Gillian Bowser, a state ecologist heading the study at Joshua Tree National Park.

The Great Tortoise Hunt is unfolding across the park’s 800,000 acres, the only protected habitat in the nation for the creature, which federal officials have designated as threatened.


The Joshua Tree National Park Assn. has been raising money in recent weeks to purchase special radio collars for each tortoise that is found. With the help of donated satellite and computer technology, Bowser plans to track their movements.

The effort has drawn support in this desert community and beyond. Outside a local grocery store, a Girl Scout troop has been selling cookies to raise money. Other donations have come from Canada, Arizona and Northern California.

Arriving each week is a new group of eco-tourists who have paid $1,200 to get up at 4 a.m. and trek miles peering under creosote bushes scouting for tortoises to wear the collars.

Tortoise counts at Joshua Tree have come up short in recent years, but ecologists do not know if there was an unnatural population dip or if drought conditions made them harder to find.


Last year, researchers found just eight tortoises during the spring count. This year, they have already found seven and are hoping to locate as many as 40.

Some residents in the nearby hamlets of Desert Center and Eagle Mountain are watching the tortoise count warily.

Peggy Castor, a cashier at McGoo’s Mini Mart in Desert Center, said efforts to protect the tortoise have already cost the desert community dearly.

Earlier this year, a San Diego County judge blocked plans for the controversial Eagle Mountain Landfill, a proposed dump on the outskirts of the park. The project was approved by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and was expected to bring thousands of jobs.


But Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell cited environmental concerns about the landfill’s effect on the national park and the region’s air quality, and noted that the dump also posed a potential risk to the tortoise.

“We all like the tortoises and everything. I think they’re cute,” Castor said. “But this is an itty-bitty community, and we’re more concerned about saving our kids than saving the tortoises.”

Bowser said the count is about more than saving a few tortoises.

“The desert tortoise is a vital sign that gives you an indication of the overall health of the area,” she said. “If the ecosystem is healthy, if it’s being preserved, then the tortoise should recover.”



The bighorn sheep, recently listed as an endangered species, is a treasured wild desert icon, its proud head with curling horns adorning a city seal, country club gates and souvenirs. But if the bighorn is the desert’s symbol, then the tortoise is its mascot: the funny little guy down on the field, feeling every change in fortunes.

“The tortoise is to this desert what a canary in the cave was to miners--if the canary died, the cave was poisoned,” said Deborah La Monica, a Joshua Tree businesswoman who was one of the first to send a check for a radio collar. “We have to keep an eye on the tortoise.”

Bowser now spends her days tutoring volunteers in the art of tortoise research.


She uses high-tech gear such as a hand-held global positioning system that can pinpoint a tortoise’s location with a direct satellite signal. Bowser also carries a dime-store mirror to gaze down burrows.

When she finds a likely hole, one with fresh dirt piled near the entrance, she flashes her mirror then lays flat to thump the ground. Tortoises thump to call other tortoises from their burrows.

“Anyone home?” she says. “Hey, are you in there?”

No tortoise emerges. After eight hours in the field on a recent day, the team would find only one tortoise, a young female too small to wear a collar. The next day, another team put in eight hours and spied one tortoise.


Bowser, however, said she sensed tortoises nearby as she combed Pinto Basin, in the heart of the park.

“I know we’re going to find tortoises out here,” Bowser said. “If we don’t, we have a problem on our hands.”

Desert tortoise numbers were decimated over the past 20 years by people carting them home as pets. In captivity, many tortoises caught a respiratory virus carried by humans and dogs.

Many tamed tortoises, having acquired a taste for iceberg lettuce, starved when their owners decided to dump them back in the wilderness. State Department of Fish and Game officials say they also infected much of the wild population with the respiratory disease that can kill a tortoise within two years.


In 1994, the federal government classified the desert tortoise as a threatened species, one step below endangered. Today, any tortoise that has had prolonged contact with humans or domesticated tortoises cannot be returned to the wild.

“The thing about the tortoises is they’re such a throwback. They look so ancient and invincible, but they’re not as sturdy as they look,” said Ken Tinquist, who leads the park association’s tortoise “adoption” program.

“They’re vulnerable to a host of environmental changes. Even if you just pick up a tortoise and frighten it, he’ll lose all his water and die if he doesn’t get a drink or some juicy fruit right away.”



So far, the association has purchased six collars. Donors who pay $250 for a collar receive a photograph of their tortoise and monthly updates on the animal’s well-being and procreating activities.

“They aren’t little and cutesy like a monkey, or big and cutesy like an elephant, but they’re just so ancient, they’re like the dinosaurs, aren’t they?” said Clare Neely, 20, a student at Edinburgh University in Scotland spending her spring vacation counting tortoises through the eco-tour company Earthwatch.

“They’ve made it through so many millions of years,” she said. “If they’re disappearing now, I think it’s important that we study them and know why.”