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The Tortoise and the Air

California desert tortoise. photo: Freya Reder

How could a fast, light metal bird help the slow, octogenarian desert tortoise of California's Mojave Desert get ahead? Read on to see how the story unfolds.

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), the state reptile of California, is a resourceful, wrinkled-face creature that members of the Desert Tortoise Preservation Committee (DTPC) spend their weekends protecting. Out in the brown expanses of California’s northwest Mojave Desert, what others perceive as miles of desolate wasteland, volunteers like DTPC’s Steve Ishii see abundance and beauty. “My wife and I love exploring new places,” said Ishii. “The first time we visited the desert, we saw a tortoise which was a rare sight. We love animals, so getting to see that first one, we were both hooked.” In this arid environment, the spunky desert tortoise digs its own water bowls in the ground to collect rainwater. In the spring, it munches on tender flowers - like coreopsis, snake’s head and wide-bannered lupine - to survive months of food scarcity.

Map courtesy of DTPC

The protected Desert Tortoise Natural Area (DTNA) boasts a rich flora and fauna representative of the intricate Mojave Desert biome. It also happens to be located in a remote, hard to reach spot wedged between the high security areas of Edwards Air Force Base and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake; unexpected and unresponsive visitors are likely to be greeted by Air Force jets.

Volunteer pilot Jo Duffy (Santa Barbara, CA) worked to secure clearance from Edwards AFB prior to the first of two flights that enabled Steve Ishii and his wife Marlene to gather over 1500 aerial images of remote tortoise habitat. The Ishiis were also able to monitor areas where off-highway vehicle (OHV) are destroying fragile habitat and investigate vandalism such as fence-cutting. “Our flight was very fruitful… as we were able to survey almost 60 square miles of land, located in two different counties, much of which is only accessible on foot,“ said Steve Ishii.

Trespassers are discovered in the protected areas during the LightHawk flight. photo: Steve Ishii with aerial support from LightHawk

During one flight with Duffy, the DTPC spotted a group illegally trespassing in protected areas. “With the help of LightHawk, the DTPC has a better understanding of the OHV activity on and around our acquired land which will help us identify areas that need sign installations to prevent damage to the existing desert ecology and habitat,” explained Marlene Ishii.

The DTNA is special because it receives more rain than surrounding areas, resulting in richer and more varied vegetation that supports a great variety of desert wildlife. In addition to the desert tortoise, the area hosts 27 other species of reptiles, 29 species of breeding birds, 23 species of mammals and many species of arthropods. In 1980, the Bureau of Land Management recognized the significance of this desert pearl by affording it special protections.

Volunteer pilot Jo Duffy (Santa Barbara, CA) with Marlene and Steve Ishii, DTPC board members.

"The most significant outcome of the flight was that we were able to identify and photograph the Camp C restoration area [which] was formerly highly disturbed by OHV activity. The DTPC has fenced the area and has been rehabilitating it…. From the air, Camp C is slightly greener than the surrounding area. Using the photos taken during the flight as a baseline, we will be able to monitor the restoration results over time,” explained Steve Ishii.

“Marlene and I (among others) spent a few Saturdays in the past couple of years installing vertical and horizontal mulches, and collecting seeds from local plants [to promote native vegetation]… it is very rewarding to see that there is a visible difference in the ground cover in Camp C and the surrounding area!”

This spring, LightHawk plans to fly with DTPC over Pilot Knob Allotment, near NAWS China Lake, to take advantage of the spring wildflower blooms to monitor for a killer weed.“Sahara mustard is an invasive species that crowds out plants that the tortoises eat, dries up in summer, and becomes wildfire fuel. By May, the mustard will be in bloom, and should be visible from the air.” – Steve Ishii

Learn more about desert tortoise preservation.