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Factors Affecting Population Assessments of Desert Tortoises

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Abstract:

Desert tortoises have been a subject of controversy since their listing as threatened in 1990. With a wide geographic range and more living individuals than any other listed land animal, biologists have needed to detect population trends against a “noisy” background of strong annual changes. We obtained annual population estimates of desert tortoises over 6 consecutive years at a 2.59-km2 plot in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Our estimates, based on weekly spring surveys, varied substantially, particularly between wet and dry years. Concurrently, we followed 10 radiotagged animals for 3 years to corroborate the surveys. Population density was determined separately for each year and for all years combined. Our best population estimate was an average of 67 adult tortoises, three times more than the density reported in a 1978 survey of the same site. Annual mortality was low ( <10%), and the animals showed extreme site fidelity. Apparent changes in population size were most strongly related to the animals' varying susceptibility to capture. In dry years, home ranges decreased, captures decreased, and effort required to find each tortoise nearly doubled. Our data confirm that tortoises are likely to be undercounted during dry years and call into question earlier studies conducted during droughts.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Joshua Tree National Park , 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277, U.S.A. 2: Department of Fish and Wildlife Biology , Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO 80523, U.S.A.

Publication date: October 1, 2000

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