Connectivity of Mojave Desert Tortoise Populations: Management Implications for Maintaining a Viable Recovery Network

Open-File Report 2021-1033

Wildlife Program

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By: , and 

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Executive Summary

The historic distribution of Mojave desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) was relatively continuous across the range, and the importance of tortoise habitat outside of designated tortoise conservation areas (TCAs) to recovery has long been recognized for its contributions to supporting gene flow between TCAs and to minimizing impacts and edge effects within TCAs. However, connectivity of Mojave desert tortoise populations has become a concern because of recent and proposed development of large tracts of desert tortoise habitat that cross, fragment, and surround designated conservation areas. This paper summarizes the underlying concepts and importance of connectivity for Mojave desert tortoise populations by reviewing current information on connectivity and providing information to managers for maintaining or enhancing desert tortoise population connectivity as they consider future proposals for development and management actions.

Maintaining an ecological network for the Mojave desert tortoise, with a system of core habitats (TCAs) connected by linkages, is necessary to support demographically viable populations and long-term gene flow within and between TCAs. There are four points for wildlife and land-management agencies to consider when making decisions that could affect connectivity of Mojave desert tortoise populations (for example, in updating actions in resource management plans or amendments that could help maintain or restore functional connectivity in light of the latest information):

  1. Management of all desert tortoise habitat for persistence and connectivity. Desert tortoise populations continue to decline within most TCAs, and it is unlikely that trends are better in populations outside protected areas. Fragmentation exacerbates negative population trends by breaking large continuous populations into smaller isolated populations. Connectivity within large populations can enhance resilience to localized disturbances due to rescue by neighboring individuals. In contrast, smaller fragmented populations are resistant to rescue by their isolation and thus could suffer irreversible declines to extirpation from a variety of threats and stochastic events. Enhanced threat reduction to reverse declines within TCAs and to maintain occupied habitat in the surrounding matrix would help reduce the variability in population growth rates and improve the resilience of protected populations even while implementing efforts to improve connectivity.

Each TCA has unique strengths and weaknesses regarding its ability to support minimum sustainable populations based on areal extent and its ability to support population increases based on landscape connection with adjacent populations. Considering how proposed projects (inside or outside of TCAs) affect connectivity and the ability of TCAs to support at least 5,000 adult tortoises (the numerical goal for each TCA) could help managers to maintain the resilience of TCAs to population declines. The same project, in an alternative location, could have very different impacts on local and regional populations. For example, within the habitat matrix surrounding TCAs, narrowly delineated corridors may not allow for natural population dynamics if they do not accommodate overlapping home ranges along most of their widths so that tortoises reside, grow, find mates, and produce offspring that can replace older tortoises. In addition, most habitat outside TCAs may receive more surface disturbance than habitat within TCAs. Therefore, managing the entire remaining matrix of desert tortoise habitat for permeability may be better than delineating fixed corridors. These concepts apply, especially given uncertainty about long-term condition of habitat, within and outside of TCAs under a changing climate.

Ultimately, questions such as “What are the critical linkages that need to be protected?” could be better framed as “How can we manage the remaining habitat matrix in ways that sustain ecological processes and habitat suitability for special status species?” Land-management decisions made in the context of the latter question may be more conducive to maintenance of a functional ecological network.

  1. Limitations on landscape-level disturbance across habitat managed for the desert tortoise Clearly delineating habitat linkages and differentiating them from non-delineated areas by the uses that are permitted or prohibited within them by specific management guidelines can help achieve functional connectivity. Such guidelines would be most effective if they considered and accounted for all surface disturbances (for example, temporary disturbances such as fiberoptic lines or off-highway vehicle routes, right-of-ways, utility-scale solar development, urbanization) to the extent possible. A weighted framework that varies with the permanence or severity of the disturbance, and can be additive to quantify cumulative effects, could be useful (Xiong, 2020). For example, minor roads can alter tortoise movements independently of other features (Peaden and others, 2017; Hromada and others, 2020), but if the isolated dirt road is accompanied by a powerline that encourages raven predation (Xiong, 2020), then the two features together may be additive. Ignoring minor or temporary disturbance on the landscape could result in a cumulatively large impact that is not explicitly acknowledged (Goble, 2009); therefore, understanding and quantifying all surface disturbance on a given landscape is prudent.
    1. In California, the Bureau of Land Management established 0.1–1.0 percent caps on new surface-disturbance for TCAs and mapped linkages that address the issues described in number 1 of this list.

    2. Nevada, Utah, and Arizona currently do not have surface-disturbance limits. Limits comparable to those in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) would be 0.5 percent within TCAs and 1 percent within the linkages modeled by Averill-Murray and others (2013). Limits in some areas of California within the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, such as Ivanpah Valley, are more restrictive, at 0.1 percent. Continuity across the state line in Nevada could be achieved with comparable limits in the adjacent portion of Ivanpah Valley, as well as the Greater Trout Canyon Translocation Area and the Stump Springs Regional Augmentation Site. These more restrictive limits would help protect remaining habitat in the major interstate connectivity pathway through Ivanpah Valley and focal areas of population augmentation that provide additional population connectivity along the western flank of the Spring Mountains.

    3. In a recent study that analyzed 13 years of desert tortoise monitoring data, nearly all desert tortoise observations were at sites in which 5 percent or less of the surrounding landscape within 1 kilometer was disturbed (Carter and others, 2020a). To help maintain tortoise habitability and permeability across all other non-conservation-designated tortoise habitat, all surface disturbance could be limited to less than 5-percent development per square kilometer because the 5-percent threshold for development is the point at which tortoise occupation drops precipitously (Carter and others, 2020a). However, although individual desert tortoises were observed at development levels up to 5 percent, we do not know the fitness or reproductive characteristics of these individuals. This level of development also may not allow for long-term persistence of healthy populations that are of adequate size needed for demographic or functional connectivity; therefore, a conservative interpretation suggests that, ideally, development could be lower. Lower development levels would be particularly useful in areas within the upper 5th percentile of connectivity values modeled by Gray and others (2019).

    4. Reducing ancillary threats in places where connectivity is restricted to narrow strips of habitat, for example, narrow mountain passes or vegetated strips between solar development, could enhance the functionality of these vulnerable linkages. In such areas, maintaining multiple, redundant linkages could further enhance overall connectivity.

  2. Minimization of mortality from roads and maximization of passage under roads. Roads pose a significant threat to the long-term persistence of local tortoise populations, and roads of high traffic volume lead to severe population declines, which ultimately fragments populations farther away from the roads. Three points (a.–c.) pertain to reducing direct mortality of tortoises on the many paved roads that cross desert tortoise habitat and to maintaining a minimal level of permeability across these roads:

    1. Tortoise-exclusion fencing tied into culverts, underpasses, overpasses, or other passages below roads in desert tortoise habitat, would limit vehicular mortality of tortoises and provide opportunities for movement across the roads. Installation of shade structures on the habitat side of fences installed in areas with narrow population-depletion zones would limit overheating of tortoises that may pace the fence.

    2. Passages below highways could be maintained or retrofitted to ensure safe tortoise access, for example, by filling eroded drop-offs or modifying erosion-control features such as rip-rap to make them safer and more passable for tortoises. Wildlife management agencies could work with transportation departments to develop construction standards that are consistent with hydrologic/erosion management goals, while also incorporating a design and materials consistent with tortoise survival and passage and make the standards widely available. The process would be most effective if the status of passages was regularly monitored and built into management plans.

    3. Healthy tortoise populations along fenced highways could be supported by ensuring that land inside tortoise-exclusion fences is not so degraded that it leads to degradation of tortoise habitat outside the exclusion areas. For example, severe invasive plant infestations inside a highway exclusion could cause an increase of invasive plants outside the exclusion area and degrade habitat; therefore, invasive plants inside road rights of way could be mown or treated with herbicide to limit their spread into adjacent tortoise habitat and minimize the risk of these plants carrying wildfires into adjacent habitat.

  3. Adaptation of management based on new information. Future research will continue to build upon and refine models related to desert tortoise population connectivity and develop new ones. New models could consider landscape levels of development and be constructed such that they share common foundations to support future synthesis efforts. If model development was undertaken in partnership with entities that are responsible for management of desert tortoise habitat, it would facilitate incorporation of current and future modeling results into their land management decisions. There are specific topics that may be clarified with further evaluation:

    1. The effects of climate change on desert tortoise habitat, distribution, and population connectivity;

    2. The effects of large-scale fires, especially within repeatedly burned habitat, on desert tortoise distribution and population connectivity;

    3. The ability of solar energy facilities or similar developments to support tortoise movement and presence by leaving washes intact; leaving native vegetation intact whenever possible, or if not possible, mowing the site, allowing vegetation to re-sprout, and managing weeds; and allowing tortoises to occupy the sites; and

    4. The design and frequency of underpasses necessary to maintain functional demographic and genetic connectivity across linear features, like highways.

Suggested Citation

Averill-Murray, R.C., Esque, T.C., Allison, L.J., Bassett, S., Carter, S.K., Dutcher, K.E., Hromada, S.J., Nussear, K.E., and Shoemaker, K., 2021, Connectivity of Mojave Desert tortoise populations—Management implications for maintaining a viable recovery network: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2021–1033, 23 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/ofr20211033.

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments  
  • Executive Summary  
  • Introduction  
  • The Framework for Mojave Desert Tortoise Recovery  
  • Recent Research Relevant to Desert Tortoise Habitat and Connectivity  
  • Management Implications  
  • Summary  
  • References Cited  
  • Appendix 
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Connectivity of Mojave Desert tortoise populations—Management implications for maintaining a viable recovery network
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2021-1033
DOI 10.3133/ofr20211033
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description vi, 23 p.
Country United States
State Arizona, California, Nevada
Other Geospatial Mojave Desert
Online Only (Y/N) Y
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