Fact Sheet
Desert Tortoise

What Defenders Is Doing to Help Desert Tortoises

Defenders was influential in having the Mojave population of the desert tortoises listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1989 and 1990, and in having its Critical Habitat designated in 1994.

Over the past several decades, Defenders has been and continues to be an outspoken advocate for conservation of desert tortoises – both their habitats and existing populations.  Defenders staff have challenged many federal, state and local government agency programs and permits allowing for excessive human activities and developments in desert tortoise habitats, and rallied our supporters to do the same. These challenges have addressed excessive and improper livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use, military base expansion and renewable energy generation and electrical transmission projects. 

Defenders has two full-time staff biologists dedicated to conservation of the natural biological communities in the Mojave Desert region, including remaining populations of the threatened desert tortoise and its habitat.  Our most challenging work now involves large-scale solar energy projects planned in remote desert landscapes that support significant numbers of desert tortoises. We spend considerable time trying to convince solar energy companies to locate their projects to degraded lands with little or no long-term conservation value for desert tortoises. We also work closely with federal and state agencies to develop policy decisions on solar energy projects that will protect important desert tortoise populations and their habitats.  As a last resort, Defenders legally challenges agency decisions approving large-scale renewable energy projects that threaten desert tortoises, their habitat and their future recovery.

In California, Defenders actively supports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in developing a desert tortoise recovery action plan for habitat located in California.  As a member of the recovery plan implementation team, Defenders staff has an opportunity to recommend implementing professional, science-based recovery actions to address the most serious threats facing the species and its remaining habitat.    

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Conservation Issue
While all wildlife has inherent value, some species serve a vital role in their ecosystem, enabling countless other species to survive and thrive. Plants, animals and insects like these are called “focal species,” of which there are five types. Each designation carries a different distinction for how these species interact with and affect their environments. · Foundational species: serve a pivotal role in their ecosystem by providing some ecosystem service upon which other species depend. Bees are foundational to ecosystems across the country, pollinating wild and cultivated plants that are essential to both wildlife and human economies worth billions of dollars. · Indicator species: are very sensitive to environmental changes in their ecosystem. An indicator species is affected almost immediately by damage to the ecosystem and can provide early warning of that a habitat is suffering. Freshwater mussels are well-known indicators of water quality conditions in rivers and lakes. A sudden increase in mortality of freshwater mussels is a reliable indicator of toxic contamination and the steady disappearance of mussels over time can be indicative of chronic water pollution. Moreover, biologists can measure the amount of pollutants found in mussel shells and tissue to determine the type, extent, and even timing of water pollution events in streams and lakes. · Keystone species: have a disproportionately large effect on the communities in which they occur. Such species help to maintain local biodiversity within a community either by controlling populations of other species that would otherwise dominate the community or by providing critical resources for a wide range of species. The wolf is a famous example of a keystone species. By controlling the numbers of grazing animals on a landscape, wolves help plant life thrive, which has the further positive affect on many other species, from birds to beavers and fish. The return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has literally transformed that landscape. Vegetation restored from decades of overgrazing by elk even changed the path of the Yellowstone River. · Umbrella species: are a species whose conservation is expected to confer protection to a large number of naturally co-occurring species. They are similar to keystone species, but are usually migratory and need a large habitat. A good example of an umbrella species is sage grouse. They need large expanses of healthy sagebrush grasslands and functioning hydrologic systems to survive and flourish. Conserving sage-grouse benefits a host of other species in the Sagebrush Sea including, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, native trout, and nearly 200 migratory and resident bird species. The success or decline of a focal species tells us something important about the health of their ecosystem. By closely monitoring these species, we can see the early warning signs of trouble within an ecosystem, and begin to investigate potential problems. Conserving and restoring these native species to their respective landscapes makes for healthier, more natural, more resilient ecosystems where wildlife of all kinds can thrive. Many of these influential species have declined over the last century for a variety of reasons. Conserving and restoring these native species to their respective landscapes makes for healthier, more natural, more resilient ecosystems where wildlife of all kinds can thrive.
Where We Work
Our Southwest team works to protect rare and threatened species like Mexican wolves, jaguars and ocelots.
Where We Work
The Golden state is home to millions of wild birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish that need our help.