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Unwanted Pet Desert Tortoises Spur New Rule

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Screen capture of a desert tortoise. (Credit: true-wildlife.blogspot.com)

Screen capture of a desert tortoise. (Credit: true-wildlife.blogspot.com)

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RENO, Nev. (AP) — An increase in unwanted pet desert tortoises in Nevada is prompting a new state regulation.

Residents seeking to acquire Nevada’s official state reptile as a pet will be restricted to having just one beginning Wednesday.

The new regulation comes after an annual average of 1,000 unwanted pet desert tortoises has been picked up in southern Nevada in recent years due to various factors, including the economy and over-breeding at homes, Nevada Department of Wildlife officials said.

Officials most recently relied on a San Diego Zoo pick-up service to deal with them, but it’s no longer available due to budget cuts and sheer unwanted tortoise numbers. The reptiles were taken to the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center near Las Vegas, and healthy ones could be released back into the wild.

“The funding isn’t there to care for all these animals,” said Cris Tomlinson, diversity biologist for NDOW. “We’re trying to manage them to reduce the unwanted numbers coming in.”

The new rule, approved by state wildlife commissioners, only affects Nevadans who seek to acquire a desert tortoise after Wednesday.

Nevada’s desert tortoise has been a threatened species since 1989, and it’s illegal to touch, disturb or remove wild tortoises. But it has been legal to acquire the reptiles through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-approved adoption program such as southern Nevada’s Tortoise Group.

Wildlife officials are urging Nevadans who acquired pet desert tortoises after Aug. 4, 1989, to register them online as soon as possible through Tortoise Group (www.tortoisegroup.org/adoption.php ).

The group’s website features information on the care of pet tortoises, including their need for burrows.

While most of Nevada’s pet desert tortoises are located in southern Nevada, others are scattered in Reno and elsewhere across northern Nevada, Tomlinson said. The species is native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in the Southwest, including southern Nevada.

Wildlife officials strongly urge Nevadans not to release desert tortoises back into the wild. Not only may pet tortoises die in the wild, but they can transmit diseases that threaten wild populations. Nevadans also are urged to separate pet tortoises to avoid over-breeding.

NDOW spokesman Chris Healy, whose family adopted two desert tortoises in 1991, said they make great pets. Healy’s Geeze, 25, and Louise, 27, are low maintenance as they spend most of their lives in hibernation. Desert tortoises can live as long as humans.

“When they hibernate, they’re in a file box with shredded newspaper in a closet in a garage where it’s pretty cool,” Healy said. “They hang out in our backyard the rest of the time. We really enjoy them.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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