Desert tortoise surveys, Las Vegas, NV

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Steve saw it first.
He was standing in front of me, the usual and required 100 ft, taking notes as we traversed the Nevada range. His pen moved quickly over the clipboard questionnaire he held before him. In a little while, we would be handling the specimens, Desert Tortoises, if there were any, and take their measurements and leave them where we found them. There we would evaluate, document location information, and measure with calipers, and scales. If everything was acceptable, fill in the clipboard and document another individual for a pre-construction survey.
Steven was jotting down items about general topography when the glitter caught his eye.
“I saw something” he said.
He flicked his head over back towards the light.
“Saw what?” I asked from behind him.
“Didn’t you see a flash?
I looked into the desert.
“We went over a lake, you know,”
“No, it wasn’t that,” Steven said “It was in that clearing beside the lake.”
His fingers scribbled out the last few notes on the clipboard and he dropped the distance line to head over to the site.
“Keep your eyes open now,” I said. “Make sure. We haven’t got any time to waste.”
Steven kept his gaze on the spot, watching the churro cacti, and Joshua trees begin to bake in the hot sun. He was thinking that maybe the moment had arrived at last; the moment in which a Desert tortoise will emerge and begin to sunbathe. Sunbathing is their daily pastime between 5am to about 8am, before they go back into their shaded burrow.
“There!” he face said. “There it is!”
He looked over at me. I was gazing into that direction. My face bore the usual discerning and tired 6am shadow.
He watches me impatiently, watched my fingers begin to scribble notes.
“Okay, let’s take the readings,” I said. “I have the compass right here, you’re at two degrees east”.
Steven whipped out the clipboard, got out various weights and calipers. I got out the measuring tape and got a measurement of how far away the tortoise was from our transcect line.
It was a tortoise. Or what was left of a tortoise, apparently it had been completely gnawed by a coyote. The tortoise was okay, but the shell was in bad shape scratched and gnawed. Pieces of the top had been chipped off by the attack and what was left was a rather mutilated outer shell. It was as if some enormous child had lost fancy with the toy and had dropped it to earth, stamped on it, banged on it with insanely with a rock. Crows often employ that strategy to kill tortoises as well.
I shuddered. It had been a long time since we’d seen a tortoise. I’d almost forgotten the other immediate threats to the habitat of the tortoise driving it to endangerment, pavement, road construction, road kills, and the enormous Las Vegas city growth in the past 19 years. This tortoise reminds me of the natural treat for the tortoise, predation.
“Can’t say much,” Steven said. “But I’d say this little guy is going to make it.”
I was about to speak, and then changed my mind.
I closely inspected the spot in the tortoises side where the shell had been laid open along the tough seams. We handled the tortoise, got measurements, and continued on our 12km morning hike.I stood by the tortoise looking out at the silent desert landscape. The sun was quickly rising. The burning rays of the sun glinted off the skin of the tortoise. I turned away. I looked at the outside temperature gauge. Already it was 84 degrees, and it was only 7am.
We had seen similar tortoises that had been rescued and taken to the Desert Tortoise relocation area.They are brought from proposed construction sites when they’re found are taken to relocation areas. The tortoises don’t stop the bulldozers, and I’m certain that most tortoises found on a construction site are invisible to the workers. Many the tortoises die from relocation only, and many more of the population will die from overcrowding and competition. Natural threats such as drought affect many of the relocated tortoises. Recovery plans are drafted in many natural areas, next to roads or facing other threats, but the data is often taken within several years, and does not accurately speak of the last 10 thousand.  Desert tortoise relocation data is even more elusive, and rarely published due to high range of mortality data between 10-50% deaths.
The Great Basin Institute is trying to estimate desert tortoises in their natural range by random quadrat sampling. The data from various states is not consistent or comparable.The original crash of populations is due to numerous factors including disease, crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, habitat degradation, and predation by dogs and ravens. Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise, which is California’s official state reptile, is now protected under both federal and California’s endangered species acts.

The impending construction threats are for large scale solar construction. For which there have been numerous lawsuits, and public outcry due to construction in the best desert tortoise habitat resulting in relocation of several hundred tortoises at a time.
Silence. We went back to our transect line and picked up the distance pole. Steven let out a long breath. Let her complain, he thought, I can take anything now.
Then I happened to glance at Stephen.
Stephen was thinking. His tall, muscular stature sulking in the desert. He said something to himself. I found myself being watched.
“Eve,” He said.
He picked up the distance pole, and began walking back to the car. According to our GPS we were off track. We had been thrown off track by an impassable mountain range. Navigating backcountry on foot can be confusing, luckily we had GPS locaters, and terrain maps where we could track our movements.
“I’m going to take us back easy,” He said to me. “There’s no reason why we should have any trouble. “
“Are you ready?” He asked.
I motioned to go, and we began walking through the alien morning landscape. An exhausting 5 hours in the desert. Finally, we reached the truck. At the beginning of projects like this one, it feels like we’re doing something for the environment, and in the end it feels like we’re doing something for logging or construction companies.
Whether or not the data we collect will be used to actually save the tortoise is negotiable. The politicians know this is all happening, and are informed.
Since the subprime mortgage crises, the huge construction projects done for multiple large scale apartment buildings financially crashed and burned. Signs that were littering the airspace for low interest condo prices, got lowered even more. Now condo prices are at one third of what they were before the crisis. Las Vegas is overdeveloped and unsustainable to begin with. Now, the housing prices are still dropping, and are predicted to drop until 2012. Now, empty condos, unemployment, and no one vacationing at the casinos left Las Vegas a desert. The crashing economy may have been the best thing to happen to the desert tortoise, until solar construction became the next biggest trend.
“Why don’t we stop kidding ourselves?” Steven said. “We all know what is it, don’t we?”
“Progress,” he said bitterly, and his voice was an aching whisper in the phantom city.

Last modified onThursday, 10 August 2017 18:41
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