Wildfire threatening endangered tortoise nearly contained

Friday , August 17, 2012 - 4:44 PM

Lynn DeBruin

ST. GEORGE— Firefighters are close to containing a lightning-sparked blaze inside a southern Utah wildlife reserve created to protect the threatened Mojave Desert Tortoise.

Yet biologists fear the latest wildfire is more bad news for the species and for the desert, which continues to be overgrown with non-native vegetation.

Officials remain hopeful very few of the estimated 1,600 adult tortoises in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve north of St. George perished in the Reserve Fire, which burned 5 square miles this week. Biologists say about 400 tortoises were killed in fires in 2005.

Since the last major fire, less than 5 percent of the native plants have grown back, choked out by more flammable and less nutritious non-native vegetation.

Officials say tortoises are important because they are good indicators of overall desert health.

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