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Endangered desert tortoises vanishing from Desert Heights

By   /   June 8, 2014  /   23 Comments

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Desert Heights (unincorporated San Bernardino County, NW of 29 Palms) – The endangered Desert Tortoises are dying out exponentially in our area like never before due to drought and climate change conditions.  Like the majestic Joshua Trees that are dying out or the ones that lack ability to reproduce, the desert tortoises face challenging times like never before. That’s the charitable views.


The not so charitable view is that they have vanished altogether in Desert Heights; no longer do they exist in the geographic area defined below.

Moreover, scientists working in the San Gorgonio Pass area have recently found that “types of lizards and insects have vanished from areas they once survived.“ And scientists have found in their research target area “more desert tortoises dead than alive.’ Even birds are changing their habitat seeking existence in higher mountain elevations, say these scientists.

Tortoises have lived in unincorporated desert heights for millions of years, even before it was a desert. These incredible life forms spend 95% of their time underground in their burrows.

My research indicates that they have disappeared entirely in the Desert Heights area generally between Lear Rd. and west of Morongo Road, and Pole Line and Old Chisholm Trail – a large part of which with no infrastructure, no water, electricity or homes.  

I live at the edge of the largest continuous BLM area in the Morongo Basin that is absent the usual  checkered board pattern of private ownership. When I moved here in late 2000, it was a joy to see these magnificent peaceful creatures on a regular basis.

However, my research shows that the last three years there are neither no active burrows or desert tortoises. Desert tortoises  have vanished!

Their shells are all that remains, and they are being broken down by the sun and extreme climate conditions and are disappearing too. The babies that use to crawl around from time-to-time have vanished. 

I have been a desert tortoise watcher going on fourteen years. Ironically, about five years ago when out-of-area guests were visiting, my friends ask me what a desert tortoises look like. I responded you will never see one in the wild unless you trek the area for a long time looking for them or the burrows.  Suddenly, we saw a  large mature male crossing the road.

You can tell males because they have “horns to combat other males and for butting and nudging females during courtship.” Males also have shallow depressions in their lower shells while the females lower shell is flat. 

We did the right thing: I carefully lifted the animal up a few inches off the ground so it wouldn’t lose its water and  slowly  escorted it  direction it was headed to a safe place off the road. My friends seven year old daughter was overjoyed!

 The desert tortoise is one of the most elusive inhabitants in the desert. Even so, once a year a wild desert tortoises use at times hang-out in my front yard alongside a California Palm Tree, but that era is long gone.

Goodbye my majestic  friends.  

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About the author

Branson Hunter

(This story was posted by Cactus Thorn contributor Branson Hunter)

"The ends do not justify the means." If you use illegal mean to accomplish a legal and even desirable result, the good result does not make the bad means you used justifiable.


  1. Dan OBrien Dan OBrien says:

    Have you been to Desert Heights? Hell I’d move too…. What an armpit…

    The tortoise is doing fine here in Wonder Valley.

    • I don’t think so, dano.

      • Larry Briggs Larry Briggs says:

        There have been droughts in the Mojave desert in the past. I’m sure the tortoise will come back to desert heights someday. They have a tortoise recovery program on the base. It’s difficult for a tortoise to transit the base and then try to cross 62. Surprised so many survive 62.

        • @Larry: One of my favorite life forms out here is the Horny Toad. I see them on occasion. I just have to lightly touch their flat back (can’t help it) and wish ‘em well.


  2. Mark Clemons Mark Clemons says:

    Always had a turtle in the turtle day races in JT great fun. The way I remember it the rapid increase in the raven population had more to do with the “demise” than those races or human interaction ever did.

    • @Mark:

      (1) True: Ravens (and coyotes) are not the friend of tortoises;

      (2) Mark, for God sake, are we every to get an outdoor theater swap meet at your historic Smith Ranch? The Marines and their families want it; locals in town and unincorporated areas need and want it; and it provides more options for visitors and tourists. Goats and fake walls do little for people that actually live in the area.

      (3) Will you please, please at least consider running for city council?

      Have a great Sunday.

      • Mark Clemons Mark Clemons says:

        Soon if big bro gives their blessing, heard the new overseers of the theater are going to conform and apply for a permit for a swap meet / ranch market.

        No need to run, this town is full of big bro followers used to getting orders and carrying them out. Some good friends but hardly seen any leaders around here, not bad people it is they are just conformers, lacking independent vision.

        I would bet three quarters or more of those that vote are receiving funds from big bro, I would not have a chance, however it has been four years.

        • I disagree with you Mark.

          This is the time; the window is open in Nov. 2014 to send two of those fellows back to being really very nice people before their egos were stiffed full of chicken droppings and Munoz poop. There is something about the second time being a charm. There is nothing to lose.

          Don’t sell the voters short. Do you think taxpayers like having a $30 M bond debt with nothing to show for it. Many of which, their siblings and their grand children are going to be paying bond investors thirty years of dividends to satisfy that debt.

          The two fellows whose terms expire cannot defend their record. I make a commitment to pass out flyers all freaking day long for you.

          Thus far, we only have one person that has taken out papers. And he may already be seated at the crony dining table. Hope not but he is on the Board of Directors with cronies. Well see. Good luck to taxpayers on that.

      • Larry Briggs Larry Briggs says:

        Be careful what you wish for Ben. Remember Elaine and Cora were your golden girls at one time.

        • Larry: Yes on Cora; Elaine was before my time (I didn’t know her). You really do enjoy yanking my chain, eh? You old curmudgeon.

        • Steve Spear Steve Spear says:

          Hi Larry,

          I call you out on this one. Elaine kept her promise to do the people’s business. I was there and saw every minute of it. She was true to her beliefs.

          Cora on the other hand has been a failure and I as well as many others that supported her because of what she said she would do are very disappointed.

          Instead we got what she can not do due to her fear of being a leader and actually accomplishing something be it perceived as good or bad.

          Invocations for example. She had a chance to make a change and failed. Fire Department issues she has failed and continues to fail.

          So do not put Cora and Elaine into the same pot. Elaine shined. That is not the case with Cora.

      • Mark Clemons Mark Clemons says:

        Branson the new theater manager went to the city in hopes of bringing the swap meet/ ranch market to 29. Can you guess how that went over?

        Being that most swap meets are held at Drive in theaters, do you think the code that prohibits an outdoor swap meet is as so many of our Third Reich codes targeted at enriching some and impoverishing others?

        Hard to fathom 91 years of paying taxes on the place, mind you it is commercial, and a little group of PC Nazis asses can stop the theater from utilizing its potential for a couple of hours every other Sunday.

        • A Smith Ranch Drive-In swap meet will benefit the public, base families and small businesses.

          Inert sacred cows on the council surely understand that people drive to YV for swap meets — thus spending their money for groceries, shopping and filling their tanks with gas.

          In order for the city to reach its potential, well-fed dancing hamsters Harris and Mintz need be put to pasture.


  3. Dan OBrien Dan OBrien says:

    While Tortoises are scarce as hen’s teeth, they can always be found near or on any proposed development or construction project. It would seem Branson, you are looking for the little fellows in the wrong place.

    I believe that since we are in a building slump, it is obvious the Tortories are either are in semi-retirement or they have moved to areas that better suit them. I know they found countless critters over in the Stateline area whilst they were building those solar plants.

    Idea… Why not let it be known that condos are planned for your neighborhood… That should bring a sufficient supply of the helmeted fellows.

    • Mark Clemons Mark Clemons says:

      “the desert tortoise can be found in the southwestern United States, but its population has been dwindling. In some areas, the tortoise population has decreased by 90 percent since the 1980s, and in the Mojave desert the population is considered “threatened.” It is illegal to touch, harm or harass these animals, and the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center has tried to increase their population ever since they were added to the endangered species list in 1990.

      Still, only 100,000 desert tortoises are estimated to remain in the wild.

      But federal funds are running dry at the Las Vegas Valley facility, and rather than release the animals, officials plan to euthanize about half of the 1,400 tortoises. The 220-acre facility will shut its doors in 2014″
      QUESTION How much did we spend with big bros mismanagement?

    • Dano, I can speak only about my “target area” as described in the story. Where once very abundant, in a short period of time they have completely vanished.

      So can we say if the useless buildings go up the downtown Project Phoenix for the selfish local crony mafia, will we have thousand of them coming in from all directions? The 29 Citizen Patrol and sheriffs will have to stop traffic to make way for the tortoise exodus.

      Maybe we can round them up and transport them to Desert Tortoise Conservation Center where those hypocrites can euthanize them.

      euthanize http://www.dailypaul.com/316447/desert-tortoise-conservation-centers-plan-to-euthanize-hundreds-of-the-tortoises-in-nevada-by-2014

      • Steve Spear Steve Spear says:

        Well let me bring out my thoughts on this matter for what they are worth.

        Things that we knew of are changing. Those things that I speak of are what I have observed and remembered of southern California over 30 years.

        Things are not as green as they once were, more burned out, if I could say, or maybe just dry.

        people talk about “weather” which is a very short term description of what is happening in your area.

        What needs to be seen is “climate”. Now climate is a long term condition spanning many years if not millennia over a region such as a continent.

        We are in a “climate change”. Now there is much disagreement over how that climate change is happening and to be honest with you all the term “global warming” was a mistake of the 10th proportion.

        But back to where we where. The hills along the I-10 and SR 60 are brown when they were once green. Things are dying too include the tortoise.

        Did we do it by putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than has been there since man never existed and only dinosaurs and giant bugs ruled the earth?

        I would say that us alive today that are over 50 years old will not see the effects of the coming disaster for we will be dead.

        But for our grandchildren I believe that they will see wars of immense proportions and starvation and natural disaster upon natural disaster.

        Can it be changed? I think so should we as a global people decide to stop burning carbon based fuels.

        Can we keep our way of living should we decide to not purchase carbon based fuels? I think we can. The sun is a fuel source that is clean and will be around for many more years than we will be should we decide to continue to change the climate with carbon based fuels.

        Anyways the tortoise is not doing well because of us and not some random cycle of the earth as some would have you believe.

        Thanks for the post Branson.


        • Smart comment Steve. I agree but believe things will get difficult IN OUR LIFETIMES. It will occur much faster that most may believe.

          One of the major problems is called the The hedonic treadmill theory.

          To wit, that as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. In other words, the more we make and spend on ourselves, the more on such a consumer treadmill, the more we want and the more unhappy a person is.

          The consumer culture is killing us!

        • Dan OBrien Dan OBrien says:

          I have lived my whole 63 years in the Great Mojave Desert and I can tell you without reservation you observations about the climate is absolute Bull Feathers.

          It has been dryer, it has been hotter, it has been greener it has been colder.

          You base your observations on 30 years I base mine of 60….

          The hottest surface temperature ever recorded on Earth was recorded in Death Valley, California, on July 10, 1913. The high that day reached 134 degrees Fahrenheit (or 56.7 degrees Celsius)! Death Valley is part of the Mojave Desert, which, along with the Sonoran desert, form one of the hottest deserts in the world. In that same year, The lowest temperature recorded at Greenland Ranch was 15 °F (−9 °C) in January 1913.

          That my friend is 101 years ago…. Long before Global Warming.

          There have been untold dry spells and untold record wet seasons.

          You seem to think that because you or I or even Larry, who traveled here with Brigham Young himself, as I understand he road drag, that any of our observations mean a thing.

          I know one thing We’ve seen two tortoises this year that is a record. That is twice as many as last year. From anecdotal observation I believe a can surmise that the population of Desert tortoises has increase 200%.

          • Larry Briggs Larry Briggs says:

            The only constant is change.

          • Steve Spear Steve Spear says:

            Believe what you may. I believe we are very rapidly killing ourselves.

            If not for the idea of Global Warming”which you think is not happening “Climate Change” is really happening.

            As the right agrees the earth changes in its climate as so do you. The difference is that some of us think that we are helping it change way too fast and you think it is just a cycle.

            Nonetheless is it really in our best interests to expend and expend, meaning burn and burn, a FINATE resource namely oil and coal and do nothing to pursue unending power sources such as the sun and wind?

            Developing the technology to keep our civilization thriving without oil and coal will take money and dedication.

            More importanyly it will take all of us to understand that the oil and coal will one day be gone and should we not have developed the technology to replace it via the sun the unmitigated disaster will befall human kind.

            Or do you think that the earth will continue to produce oil and coal faster than we are burning it?

            Do you not realize that the oil and coal were formed millennia ago and are no longer forming?

            Why is it so bad to think outside of the petroleum and coal box?

            Why do Republicans not see?

            • Dan OBrien Dan OBrien says:

              Steve, I love you like a brother, but your above baseless emotional rant was with out a single fact and was all conjecture.

              So many things so little space….

              Seriously you are concerned that we “mankind” are on a course for certain disaster?

              This moment of industrialization has been but a small spike in the history of mankind and an even small blip in the history of the Earth.

              We will survive, we will adapt, or we will shrink down to a population that can survive and adapt.

              Or we parish all, and the Earth is saved from our meddlesome ways.

              Coal and oil is not replenishing itself? Really?? Have you ever heard of peat bogs? Have you never heard of permafrost?

              (I feel quite comfortable in my Conservative skin, thank you very much.)

              SO what do you want? A million Condor Cuisinarts murdering every bird on the continent and Solar panels covering the all open spaces in the name of environmentalism??.

              That is your solution…. Democrats…. huh…

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