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Saving the Mojave Desert Tortoises

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Spring has come and gone, and I've moved on to more domestic adventures, like rebuilding the fence around my house. Before my spring memories fade I wanted to share a few tales from the transect line. My partner, Adam Drummer, and I work as a Desert Tortoise biologists in the Mojave desert every spring and fall. This spring we were one of seven crews collecting data for a Desert Tortoise population monitoring project called Line Distance Sampling.

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All images: Sage Clegg

We live in our ATC pop up camper on the back of our Tacoma while we work. We camp near our transect for the next morning, parking in random spots throughout the Mojave. One night we might live on a dry lakebed, the next at a granite boulder filled mountain pass. We walk one 12k transect each day, and then drive to the next on our list, navigating old bumpy dirt roads to another middle of nowhere spot.

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Every morning we crawl out of bed, whip up some coffee, pack lunch & snacks, double check our water supply, lace up our shoes, and head off into the desert to look for tortoises. We navigate to our starting corner using a GPS, open our data sheets, and take a bearing for the first leg of a 12 Kilometer square transect. One of us leads with a 25 meter clothes line clipped on the back, and the other follows behind. The goal is to find 99% of the tortoises within 2 meters of the line. The data we collect will be analyzed to get a sense of how Desert Tortoise populations are doing in the Mojave.

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Each hole in the ground big enough to fit a tortoise is worthy of investigation, as Desert Tortoises spend most of their time in burrows underground. Desert Tortoises are long lived creatures who can survive on less water in a year than most of us drink in a day.

They are well camouflaged, making it a challenge to see them even when staring right at them. They spend the heat of summer and the chill of winter underground in their burrows and emerge each spring and fall to feed, mate, lay eggs (in the spring), and check in with their neighbors.

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No one really knows how long Desert Tortoises live, but probably somewhere between 50 & 100 years. They don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 15-20 years old, and most hatchlings (over 80%) don’t survive to adulthood. Desert Tortoise population has been in decline since the 1970’s, and they became a federally listed threatened species in 1990. Since then, Desert Tortoise populations have been monitored, and Line Distance Sampling is one of the accepted methods.

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Collecting data for Line Distance Sampling takes constant focus. Glancing under shrubs, rock overhangs, and scanning thick brush, all while walking a straight of a line kept my brain engaged all day. This kind of hiking is slower than thru-hiking pace, but the act of observing intensely for hours daily fuels my soul. Just imagine blending thru-hiking with a never ending Easter egg hunt!

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Good solid footwear is important to the success of my data collection. This season I wore the new Oboz Switchback, and they worked well on even the toughest transects (jagged lava fields and Cholla groves). Most of my co-workers had to buy new shoes after a month, but my switchbacks held together the whole season.

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The uppers were breathable, but durable, and the sole held together far better than I expected with it’s exposed foam. After 400ish miles of shoe-eating transect walking, my Switchbacks are still holding together well enough to be put to work here at home as we re-build our fence.

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All those tortoises I met this spring are safe underground in their cool burrows, while I’m here working in my yard during a heat wave in my Oboz. I’d say the torts have it figured out better than I do, but at least my feet are staying cool and comfy!

At the heart of everything we do are the folks who make the magic happen. A group of likeminded footwear-industry vets who left our big-brand jobs back in 2007 intent on doing business a better way. 

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