Developing an effective Agassiz's Desert Tortoise monitoring program: Final report to the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission

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Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is a conservation-reliant species with populations north and west of the Colorado River protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (Averill-Murray et al. 2012). Since it was listed under this category in 1990, a great deal has been learned about the natural history of the species, and it is now one of the best-studied turtles in the United States (Lovich and Ennen 2013). However, the accumulated body of scientific data available for the species has not yet been translated into recovery or delisting of the species. Successful conservation of any species requires knowledge of their natural history and how vital rates affect their ability to maintain stable populations in the face of natural and anthropogenic stresses.

Agassiz’s desert tortoises occur from southwestern Utah to near the Mexican border in California – a distance of over 450 km – but population densities vary greatly across this immense landscape (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2015). Tortoises occur in the Sonoran Desert of California, including the eastern and western ends of the Coachella Valley, where it is one of 27 species covered under the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan and Natural Community Conservation Plan (CVMSHCP/NCCP). The southern portion of Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) lies within this 1.1 million acre planning area, and was predicted to be an area of low-density tortoise populations using habitat suitability modeling (Barrows 2011). JTNP is near the southern distributional limit of G. agassizii, yet very little has been published regarding the ecology of tortoises in the Sonoran Desert of California.

Reproductive output is an important gross measure of the ability of a population to persist. When integrated with data on fertility and survivorship, this information forms a foundation for assessing population status and formulating effective management strategies (e.g., Congdon et al. 1993, 1994), especially for imperiled species. One aspect of the biology of G. agassizii that has been particularly well-studied is reproductive output. However, most of what we know about this topic comes from research in the Mojave Desert portion of the species’ range (Ernst and Lovich 2009). Comparatively little has been published on the reproductive ecology of populations living in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem of California. Publications by Lovich et al. (1999, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) constitute the main body of literature on desert tortoise reproductive ecology in the Sonoran Desert of California, with one study population located at the western end of the CVMSHCP/NCCP area. Collecting data on Agassiz’s desert tortoise ecology in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem is important due to significant differences between the two adjacent desert ecosystems, especially the timing and amounts of annual precipitation, and their potential effects on reproductive output (e.g., Lovich et al. 5 2015). There are also differences in the vulnerability of tortoises to the effects of a warming, drying climate between the two deserts (Barrows 2011; Zylstra et al. 2012).

The overall goal of this study was to collect data on demography, reproductive output, and genetic affinities at a study site in the Sonoran Desert portion of JTNP in the eastern end of the CVMSHCP/NCCP area. Specific objectives included: 1) Collect data to establish baselines on tortoise populations and/or their habitat suitability in core habitat within the CVNCCP area, including biotic and abiotic variables affecting persistence of tortoise populations; 2) Compare and contrast with data collected on desert tortoises at USGS/BLM study site near Palm Springs over 16 years; 3) Support long-term modeling efforts needed to determine tortoise population viability; 4) Refine modeled relationships with identified threats such as fire, invasive species and climate change; and 5) Prioritize adaptive management needs for the desert tortoise in and beyond the CVNCCP area. The data from this study will aid in determining baseline estimates of the desert tortoise population size within the planning area as well as establish a marked population of Agassiz’s desert tortoises for future monitoring. Data will be integrated with habitat modeling in order to refine model output. Genetic data will be collected on both the north and south sides of Interstate 10 to determine the potential effects of habitat fragmentation and genetic mixing. Analyses are ongoing and results beyond those presented in this report will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals following inclusion of additional data collected on the south side of Shavers Valley in 2017-2018.

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Title Developing an effective Agassiz's Desert Tortoise monitoring program: Final report to the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Coachella Valley Conservation Commission
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 26 p.