Looking for a new pet? How Utahns can rescue a threatened desert tortoise

A Mojave desert tortoise in a burrow, which is among the items an adopted desert tortoise needs, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The division has close to 20 tortoises currently up for adoption.

A Mojave desert tortoise in a burrow, which is among the items an adopted desert tortoise needs, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The division has close to 20 tortoises currently up for adoption. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resour)

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Ann McLuckie believes desert tortoises can make for great pets, especially if you're looking for a companion that doesn't require a whole lot of work.

"They have their own unique personality," says McLuckie, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "They will gladly eat the weeds in your backyard and they are fairly independent as long as they have shade and food. They also hibernate for roughly five months out of the year, making them a fairly low-maintenance pet."

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resource says they have close to 20 tortoises available for adoption this year. Anyone interested in owning a desert tortoise can now apply for the adoption process.

A wildlife biologist wouldn't typically talk about making a threatened species a pet — or any wild animal, for that matter. The division routinely pleads with the public to not take wild animals home, usually after there is an incident involving an animal.

But in this case, the desert tortoises up for adoption have already been removed from the wild for one reason or another. The common reason is someone took the animal from the wild illegally. The division reported there were nine cases of tortoises illegally taken from the wild last year.

Other common reasons are that a wild tortoise ventured into an urban area or was found in a region where it could not survive, a person moves to Utah with a tortoise but does not have the proper paperwork required in Utah or someone who owns a tortoise legally is relocating to a state that won't allow the tortoise as a pet.

The creatures cannot be returned to the wild after they are taken because of a risk that the animal will introduce new diseases to the wild population, especially if they have been around other animals inside a home, McLuckie explains.

"They are susceptible to a density-dependent disease called upper respiratory tract disease, which presents like pneumonia," she said.

This is why the division created the Utah Desert Tortoise Adoption Program in the 1990s. It allows Utahns — aside from areas where tortoises naturally live like Iron, Kane or Washington — to rescue desert tortoises, given that their paperwork is approved by the state.

Anyone in the 26 other counties can apply, though it's recommended that a resident have a "safe outdoor and indoor environment" for a tortoise, division officials say. They also recommend that you don't apply on an impulse because tortoises can live up to 60 to 70 years.

There's a $10 handling fee with every application and a $75 certificate of registration fee if an application is approved. Division officials add that those adopting are also responsible for any veterinarian costs once they own a tortoise.

However, the program helps prolong the lives of struggling species. State biologists estimate there are about 2,000 adult tortoises in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which represents the majority of adult desert tortoises in Utah.

It remains listed as "threatened," under the Endangered Species Act. McLuckie says tortoise populations remained threatened by wildfires, including ones in 2005 and 2020 that heavily damaged the species' native habitats. Introductions of exotic pets and habitat loss from urban development are other major challenges.

"(O)ur focus includes restoring habitat that has been impacted by wildfires, protecting habitat from degradation and translocating tortoises from developed areas into designated sites within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve," she said.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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