Biologists offer crash course in keeping desert tortoises safe from, well, crashes

A biologist shows the right way to move a tortoise when necessary in an emergency to protect the animal’s health. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A biologist shows the right way to move a tortoise when necessary in an emergency to protect the animal’s health. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Desert Tortoise crossing signs like this one have been posted at locations on base reminding motorists to be on the lookout for these animals, which are so vulnerable once they venture onto a roadway. (Air Force photo by Gary Hatch)

Desert Tortoise crossing signs like this one have been posted at locations on base reminding motorists to be on the lookout for these animals, which are so vulnerable once they venture onto a roadway. (Air Force photo by Gary Hatch)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, California --

The biologists in Environmental Management recently returned a desert tortoise to the wild after it was hit by a car, but not before the animal had received six months of medical and rehabilitative care.

The biggest danger by far on base that desert tortoises face from humans is a collision with a car, said base biologist Misty Hailstone.

In an effort to prevent as many of those collisions as possible, the biologists put together something of a crash course in auto-tortoise safety.

With desert tortoises being federally listed as a threatened species, it is important for base workers and residents to be aware that they are likely to be found on or near roadways. Tortoises are attracted to roads because they provide easy transportation routes and are places that collect and concentrate scattered rainfall in puddles, biologists say.

Drivers may find tortoises moving above ground any time of the year, especially during and after rainfall, but they are most active in the spring – March through May – and the fall – September through October.

Tortoise signs have been placed in various locations throughout the base over the years due to recurring desert tortoise sightings along roads, near buildings and under parked cars where desert tortoises seek shelter from the elements. People are encouraged to check under and around vehicles prior to moving them, especially if parked near open desert, Hailstone said.

If a desert tortoise is seen and is not in immediate danger, people are advised to not touch the animal but monitor it until it reaches safety. Environmental Management should be contacted immediately at 277-1401 if a tortoise is seen, whether it is in danger or not.

In non-emergency situations, only authorized and trained people are allowed to touch a desert tortoise. Unauthorized handling could result in a $50,000 fine and jail time, Hailstone said.

However, if motorists encounter a desert tortoise in immediate danger on or near the road, they can pick it up and move it off the road. Environmental Management recommends slowly approaching the desert tortoise from its front, then stepping around it just enough to pick it up securely by its sides with both hands. Keep it level and place it at least 100 feet off the road in a shady spot, pointed in the same direction it was headed. After moving a desert tortoise, call the Environmental Management office so a trained biologist can make sure the animal does not need further assistance.

“It is up to all of us to ensure that these animals stay safe so that future generations have the opportunity to see and experience these incredible and unique creatures that are so important to the ecosystem, its health and function,” Hailstone said.

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