The Law and the Desert Tortoise in Nevada: Q&A
The Mojave desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1989. The tortoise is also protected under Nevada Administrative Code (NAC 503 080). Nevada’s desert tortoise is a threatened species. It is important for all of us to understand the laws regarding the wild and pet desert tortoise populations.
Q. How do I treat a wild tortoise?
A. It is illegal to touch, disturb, harass, harm, poach, or bother a tortoise in any way. Leave a wild tortoise alone.
Q. Can I pick up shells or other tortoise parts in the desert?
A. It is illegal to collect tortoise remains.
Q. What do I do if I see a wild tortoise about to be harmed, like on a road?
A. If it is safe for you to stop, approach the tortoise from the front, pick it up, hold it level, and move it several yards beyond the side of the road or inside any fencing in the direction the tortoise was heading.
Q. Is it legal for me to have a pet desert tortoise?
A. Yes, if you acquired your tortoise before August 4, 1989 or adopted it through a US Fish and Wildlife Service-approved adoption program, which in southern Nevada is Tortoise Group. Those who have pet desert tortoises are custodians and do not “own” the captive desert tortoise. You may also receive a tortoise from another person and register it on the Tortoise Group website to make it legally yours. Those who have pet desert tortoises are custodians and do not “own” the captive desert tortoise.
Q. How do I adopt a desert tortoise?
A. Click on the Adoption page and follow the instructions to read about tortoise care. Then submit an Adoption Application. We will contact you right away to set up a time to visit your yard and make suggestions about your tortoise habitat. When your habitat is ready, we will bring your tortoise. It’s that easy!
Q. I am the custodian of one tortoise. Can I adopt another tortoise? I think mine is lonely.
A. As of May 1, 2013, NEW custodians are limited to one tortoise to avoid breeding. Other custodians are grandfathered in with however many tortoises they have. Your desert tortoise prefers to live a solitary lifestyle and is fine with the company of you, your family, and other pets.
Q. Someone just gave me a tortoise. What do I do?
A. It is perfectly legal to “gift” a tortoise. To make that tortoise legally yours, register it on the Tortoise Group website. You even get to print out an Adoption Certificate!
Q. Will I get in trouble if I call about a tortoise I have may have gotten illegally?
A. Absolutely not. Tortoise Group is devoted to helping you and your tortoise. We can give you suggestions on care and feeding, adoption, what to do with tortoises you may have found (or if you have too many), and many other topics. We seek to help you provide the best possible situation for your tortoise.
Q. Is it okay for me to breed my desert tortoises?
A. Breeding of desert tortoises is not yet illegal in Nevada. However, Tortoise Group and federal and state wildlife agencies strongly discourage breeding captive desert tortoises. We suggest only one tortoise per household. If you keep multiple desert tortoises, separate the sexes and do not allow them to breed. Backyard breeding of desert tortoises has resulted in an overabundance of unwanted pet desert tortoises, which costs management agencies a lot of taxpayer money to manage and care for. Please, no breeding.
Q. What do I do if I find a tortoise wandering in a developed area in southern Nevada?
A. Bring the tortoise inside out of the heat or cold. Place the tortoise in a clean, well-ventilated container, such as a cardboard box, and keep it in a dry area with moderate temperature, such as a bathroom or laundry room. (If you don’t have a box, put the tortoise on the floor in a bathroom or laundry room and shut the door.) The tortoise will be okay without food, but you can offer it a drink of water in a shallow dish. Make sure the tortoise is safe from children and pets.
First Step: Put up flyers on mail boxes or light poles around the neighborhood for 11/2-2 blocks. Include a photo of the tortoise (if possible), the length of the shell, when it was found, and your phone number. Talk with neighbors.
If no one claims it, you have two choices:
- Keep the tortoise. You can keep it, prepare a habitat in your yard (Tortoise Group will be happy to help), and register it on the Tortoise Group website making you the legal custodian. It must live outside. Go to Registration for more information on preparing your habitat.
- Find someone to take the tortoise. Ask them to register and prepare their yard using our guidelines.
What if I can’t keep it at my house?
There is no longer a place to drop off tortoises. However, as a very last resort, you might see if The Animal Foundation will take the tortoise. That address is 655 N Mojave, near Bonanza and Pecos.
- It is illegal to release the tortoise in the desert.
Q. What do I do if I find a wild tortoise?
A. If you found the tortoise on the outskirts of town, and if the tortoise pulls into its shell and stays there for 15 minutes or more, it’s probably wild.
- If it’s not in any immediate danger, leave it alone.
- If it is in danger such as on a busy road, pick it up holding it level and move it off the road in the direction it was heading.
- If you collected it, take it back to where you found it. There are plenty of pet tortoises waiting for adoption. Click Adoption to learn more.
Q. What do I do if I see a wild tortoise in the desert?
A. Wild desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert are protected under the Endangered Species Act and state law. Dead or alive they are not to be touched, collected, or disturbed in any way. However, if you find a wild tortoise on a busy road through the desert, you may help it across the road. Pick it up slowly, from the front, hands firmly on each side. Hold it level and carry it several yards away from the road in the direction it was heading. Place it in the shade, such as under a shrub.
Q. What do I do if I have a pet tortoise that I can no longer keep?
A. First, try to find a friend, family member or acquaintance who will give your tortoise a new home. Try very hard. Next, you can call Tortoise Group Adoptions (702-739-7113 #2) to add your tortoise to those available for adoption. Be aware that hundreds of tortoises need new homes every year. Do not release the tortoise into the desert.
Q. My tortoise is living with me in Nevada. May I take it with me when I move to another state?
A. A Nevada tortoise must not cross state lines without written permission from both the exporting and importing states’ wildlife agencies. You will need an exportation permit from the Nevada Department of Wildlife, which will not be granted unless an importation permit from the state you’re moving to has already been authorized by that state’s wildlife agency. And remember, a tortoise should live in the desert.
Q. I am moving from California to Nevada, one desert area to another. May I bring my tortoise with me?
A. Only if both the exporting and importing states’ wildlife agencies provide written permission prior to your move.