2012 Project of the Year: Desert Tortoise Monitoring

 

Winner: Nevada Conservation Corps / Great Basin Institute

In response to the federal listing of desert tortoises (Mojave population) as a threatened species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) instituted a Desert Tortoise Range-Wide Monitoring Program to track the population density of tortoises throughout their range.

In 2011, the Great Basin Institute (GBI) coordinated with the FWS to implement line distance sampling (LDS) to monitor desert tortoise populations in the eastern Mojave Desert of southern Nevada, northwest Arizona and southwest Utah. By collaborating with GBI and the Nevada Conservation Corps (NCC), the USFWS is implementing their study at a cost savings of approximately three times less than utilizing private consulting firms and simultaneously training the next generation of field biologists.

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is federally listed as a threatened species north and west of the Colorado River under the Endangered Species Act. The species was listed as threatened due to the loss of habitat in CA and NV from the increase in development of land to meet the needs of growing populations; when listed, Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in the US with 4-5 thousand new residents every month. The desert tortoise is considered a “key stone” species of the desert southwest. Population density data is used to inform land managers of the current state of the desert environment.

The focus of the desert tortoise LDS monitoring program is to collect data, over 25 years, which will allow researchers to estimate population density of these animals in the eastern portion of their range. Ultimately the data collected will be used by the USFWS to inform future management of the desert tortoise, including the delisting of the species, continual listing as threatened, or escalation to an endangered species. LDS monitoring occurs during April and May to coincide with the peak in the activity season of tortoises.

The Great Basin Institute, in collaboration with the FWS, provided desert tortoise handling and field training, field data collection, logistical support, quality assurance and control data checks, and GIS mapping for the LDS program. Field training required Corpsmembers to participate in a rigorous 4 week program during which they were required to demonstrate proficiency in backcountry navigation and wilderness field skills, including 4WD vehicle operation, the use of GPS units, the ability to read topographic maps, and PDA technology. Corpsmembers were also trained in wilderness first aid as well as emergency procedures and protocols. In addition, members were field tested on their ability to follow monitoring protocols thoroughly and precisely.

Twenty three LDS field survey technicians were hired to collect data on 6km and 12km transects and to monitor 33 radiotelemetered tortoises. This season, 11 LDS field technician teams collected data on a total of 380 transects (~4000km walked), detecting a total of 238 tortoises. Four telemetry technicians monitored 33 radio-telemetered tortoises for a combined total of 2,184 observations. As mentioned previously, the data collected in the 2011 field season will be compiled with additional data spanning the 25 year research period and will ultimately inform USFWS next steps in the management of the desert tortoise.

The Nevada Conservation Corps (NCC) has historically focused on hands-on conservation efforts, including recreational trail construction/maintenance, hazardous fuels reduction, and habitat restoration. The desert tortoise LDS project is a different style of project for the Corps, because the service the Corps is providing shifts away from the traditional land management manual labor efforts and engages Corpsmembers in a long term US Fish and Wildlife conservation project to protect a threatened species through data collection and research efforts.

In addition, unlike the majority of NCC projects, the US Fish and Wildlife service provides detailed protocols and extensive training to ensure Corpsmembers have the skill set to collect the necessary data and have met the requirements to be federally permitted to handle a threatened species. Because the desert tortoise is a protected species, all development in southern Nevada and the desert southwest is impacted by the presence of the species. Over the past several years, renewable energy development has greatly increased in the desert southwest. With the increasing focus on renewable energy, the demand for qualified desert tortoise monitors has also increased. Corpsmembers had the opportunity to gain experience with and become permitted (both state and federal) to handle desert tortoises, and to gain perspectives in issues of public land management. This project has provided well trained individuals to work in the field and provide compliance with permits for development as the renewable energy industry grows in southern Nevada and throughout the west. Ten Corpsmembers from the 2011 LDS field monitoring team are currently employed in the renewable energy industry, working for private environmental consulting firms. Through their experiences with the LDS project, Corpsmembers who successfully complete the program come away with valuable technical skills that will make them very marketable when seeking additional employment opportunities.

Due to the level of training and overall experience provided by the LDS project, individuals are contacting GBI to inquire about becoming a part of the NCC desert tortoise team, increasing the quality of applicants we receive each year. In addition, through the LDS project, the NCC has continued to strengthen our partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as diversify its service offerings for other land managers.