Red Cliffs Desert Reserve

Posted: Jul 1, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith

The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in southwestern Utah covers more than 62,000 acres in Washington County just north of the city of St. George, including Snow Canyon State Park.

Objective: The reserve provides habitat and protection for the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizi) under Washington County's habitat conservation plan.

Participants: Washington County, Snow Canyon State Park, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the cities of St. George, Washington City, Ivins, Hurricane, Santa Clara, Rockville, and Springdale

History: Plodding across the rocky desert landscape, the Mojave Desert tortoise faced a hardscrabble existence even in the best of times. And these are not the best of times. Only two percent of hatchlings currently survive to adulthood due to predation, habitat loss, roadkills, introduced disease, and other human-created hazards. In 1990, the USFWS listed as threatened the Mojave Desert population of desert tortoises, which occurs in parts of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Tucked into the southwestern corner of Utah, Washington County occupies a transition zone between three ecosystems -- the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau - and contains one of the densest populations of Mojave Desert tortoises within the species' range, according to Chris Montague, TNC's director of conservation programs for Utah.

Washington County has provided classes about desert tortoises and other local wildlife to more than 2,000 schoolchildren.
Photo courtesy of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
In the early 1990s, Washington County was one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. The listing of the tortoise threatened to severely curtail development, triggering contentious arguments among developers, business interests, and environmentalists, and a backlash against both the federal government and the desert tortoise. "It was felt to be a federal hand reaching into a local community and telling us what to do," says Bill Mader, administrator of Washington County's habitat conservation plan and the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

In an effort to mitigate the adverse impacts of the listing, local, state, and federal officials, developers, and nonprofit groups, including TNC, formed the Washington County Desert Tortoise Steering Committee to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the tortoise. The committee suffered a "huge amount of turmoil" during the six years it took to develop the HCP, Mader says. Some committee members feared restrictions to protect the tortoise would, in effect, lock people out of the land dedicated to the reserve.

The resulting HCP sought to protect the tortoise by creating the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Named for its striking lava-mantled sandstone cliffs that catch fire in the evening sun, the reserve includes Snow Canyon State Park, a site inhabited by the Anasazi people from 200 to 1250 A.D. The HCP, which was officially approved by the USFWS in 1996, was a compromise of environmental and developmental imperatives.

In addition to creating the reserve, it also opened more than 350,000 acres of surrounding land to development and allowed access within the reserve for municipal water wells, power lines, and an electric substation. Further, it permitted expansion of Red Hills Parkway from two to four lanes within the reserve, even though the expansion forced the relocation of 16 desert tortoises and destroyed some tortoise habitat, according to Mader. The HCP also included a 20-year incidental take permit allowing the removal or accidental killing of 1,169 tortoises on property outside the reserve.

Accomplishments: Under the terms of the HCP, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve protects desert tortoises while still allowing development in surrounding areas. Since the plan is administered by Washington County, it "removed the chaos factor from economic planning," Mader says. The reserve's annual budget derives from development impact fees, including $250 per acre for subdivided property and .02 percent of new construction costs.

Before a development of a property can begin, county and state employees remove any resident desert tortoises. The tortoises are tested for diseases and healthy ones are relocated within the reserve. Washington County has worked with the USFWS and University of Nevada-Reno to develop successful relocation techniques. Since 1996, approximately 400 tortoises have been relocated to the reserve, says reserve biologist Lori Rose.

Through purchase, donation and exchange of Utah school trust land, reserve partners, including the BLM and the USFWS, have acquired more than 8,700 acres of private land worth more than $70 million within the reserve boundaries. TNC transferred two parcels of land to the BLM to help create the reserve, according to Montague. A Congressional bill to purchase a remaining 1,500-acre private parcel within the reserve has been stalled for years due to conflicts over valuation of the property.

Washington County purchased all of the grazing rights within the reserve. The county has also provided classes about desert tortoises and other local wildlife to more than 2,000 schoolchildren, and is spending more than $300,000 to build a new nature education center in St. George with educational exhibits and enclosures for desert tortoises, snakes, and a gila monster. The center should open during 2005.

More than 50 miles of tortoise-proof fencing has been installed at the reserve to protect tortoises from traffic.
Photo courtesy of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
Questions about recreation within the reserve also ignited conflict before a Public Use Plan process brought Washington County staff together with local horse riders, mountain bikers, and hikers. The collaboration resulted in designation of more than 130 miles of mixed-use trails in the reserve. The reserve has installed more than 50 miles of tortoise-proof fencing to protect tortoises from vehicle traffic and to restrict unauthorized access by all-terrain vehicles. Under a volunteer steward program initiated last year as part of a community outreach effort, church, school, and recreation groups have volunteered to help build new trails, close old ones and rehabilitate disturbed areas. Doug Paddock, a steward and member of the local Back Country Horsemen of America chapter, rides his horse on reserve trails handing out pamphlets to educate visitors about the reserve and desert tortoises. He also reminds them to stay on the trails and keep their dogs leashed. "I think this reserve is probably the premier of all of them," he says. "If the public buys into it, it's going to be protected more than if the public is shut out."

The habitat conservation plan "was an effective compromise, not perfect, but it has proven to be effective," Mader says. "Is there still old baggage of conflict out there? There is, but you find that with any environmental issue in the West.

Challenges/constraints: Even the best of management plans cannot control the weather. A severe drought in 2002 decimated the desert tortoise population in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. From 1998 to 2001, annual surveys of desert tortoise numbers within the reserve carried out by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources consistently estimated a population of roughly 2,200 to 4,250 adult tortoises within the reserve, says Division wildlife biologist Ann McLuckie. In 2003, following the devastating drought of 2002, the estimates dropped to 1,250 to 2,252 tortoises.

Upper respiratory tract disease, a common ailment for adult tortoises which makes them less resistant to drought, may have played a role in the loss of almost half the desert tortoise population. From 1998 through 2001, biologists had seen increasing numbers of tortoises infected with the disease, which may have been introduced through release of captive tortoise. The 2003 and 2005 surveys found fewer tortoises with the disease, leading biologists to conclude that many infected tortoises died during the drought. "The drought was what basically tipped the balance," McLuckie says. However, preliminary results from the 2005 survey look promising. "We encountered a lot of tortoises," McLuckie says. "It's our feeling that the population is at least stable. We do not feel the population has declined any further since 2003."

Although the drought has ended, wildfire is posing a new threat. In June 2005, dozens of wildfires ignited by lightning storms burned across southwestern Utah. The 760-acre Red Cliffs Fire burned stretches of the reserve, killing at least one desert tortoise. Several burrows in the burn area haven't been active since the fire. In late June 2005, the 2,800-acre Plateau Fire burned some of the most important desert tortoise habitat within the reserve. At least one tortoise was found dead, although Rose expects to record more fatalities. "The big thing right now on my radar screen is wildfire," Rose says. "It's burning everything to a crisp. This is just June, and we've got two more months to go." Even if tortoises survive a wildfire by hiding in their burrows, they could starve afterward if surrounding vegetation is destroyed.

Besides the natural threats, such as drought and fire, development pressures remain an issue. Some St. George and Washington City officials want to build a new highway, the Northern Beltway, to relieve traffic congestion, even though its route would bisect the reserve, dividing the desert tortoise population and destroying precious habitat. The habitat conservation plan does not allow construction of the highway, but highway backers may push the proposal when the current take permit expires in 2016. Mader believes they will not succeed. "This is such pristine open space that people will not permit a highway to go through it because people want open space in their communities," Mader says.

For more information see:

Red Cliffs Desert Preserve Homepage

The Nature Conservancy Red Cliffs

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