SALT LAKE CITY Wildfires burning in the Southwest are threatening federally protected desert tortoises, further stressing a species that already has lost much of its population to drought.
At least two of the animals died this week and more could turn up as biologists search the charred landscape.
“I think these fires are going to put a lot of pressure on local populations and we’re going to be faced with some challenges,” said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The tortoise, which was placed on the federal threatened species list 25 years ago, roams across millions of acres in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah and is considered an indicator of the health of the desert environment. Tortoise deaths have been linked to invasions of noxious weeds, drought and loss of desert land to development.
A government report three years ago said it was difficult to come up with an accurate number of living tortoises, mainly because the habitat stretches across four states. That also makes it difficult to know if the $100 million-plus spent by the government to help the species make a comeback was working.
But wildfires are definitely not helping.
In Nevada, firefighters on Friday said huge blazes burning in a vast area inhabited by desert tortoise and bighorn sheep were about half contained.
Among the many fires that burned tens of thousands of acres in southwestern Utah in the last week was in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
The 61,000-acre reserve, with its scenic red rock cliffs and lava flows, provides prime habitat for about 1,700 Mojave Desert tortoises, officials for the private reserve said. Just three years ago, before drought took its hold on the state, there were 6,000 to 8,000 tortoises on the reserve.
Bekee Megown, a fire biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Friday two turtles were known to have died in the 3,000-acre fire, but at least three survivors had been found.
“That’s very encouraging,” she said.
Animals that burrowed deep enough into the ground were probably safe from the fire, but tortoises in shallow burrows or out in the open had little chance of survival.
“The problem is when these big fires start they burn throughout the day,” said Bill Mader, administrator of the Red Cliffs Reserve. “They burn real quickly and so if the tortoise is caught in that they’re doomed.”