Kristin H. Berry & Timothy Duck


Important Laws and Regulations
Protecting Tortoises

The laws and regulations governing the desert tortoise differ by state, location within the state, and whether the desert tortoise is a captive or a wild animal. In most places, the shell-skeletal remains are also protected by law and can only be collected by permit. People can be fined for collecting, harassing, shooting, harming, killing, or purchasing a desert tortoise under existing state laws. The populations that are federally-listed as threatened are similarly protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Table 1 (below) provides a summary of the laws and regulations by government agency (Federal or State) and by the state where tortoises occur.

The sequence of events leading to Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended, is shown below:

bullet1980 - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the desert tortoise population on the Beaver Dam Slope in Utah as threatened and designated 35 square miles as Critical Habitat for this population.
bullet1980 - the Bureau of Land Management listed the desert tortoise as a "sensitive species."
bullet1989 - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed desert tortoise populations occurring north and west of the Colorado River as endangered on an emergency basis for 240 days.
bullet1990 - on April 2 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final decision or rule listing the desert tortoises north and west of the Colorado River as threatened. The threatened populations include tortoises living in California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, and in Arizona north of the Grand Canyon. For convenience, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service referred to these populations of the desert tortoise as the Mojave population. In fact, the Mojave population includes desert tortoises living in the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
bullet1991 - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a finding that the desert tortoise population living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona did not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. However, tortoises are protected under state law in Arizona.
bullet1994 - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated approximately 6.4 million acres as critical habitat for the Mojave population of the desert tortoise (Federal Register, Vol. 59, No. 26, Feb. 8, 1994: 5820-5866). Critical habitat is defined as those habitat areas that contain physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species, regardless of whether the species is present in those areas (Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended, Section 3).
bullet1994 - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published the Desert Tortoise (Mojave Population) Recovery Plan. The Plan was prepared by a national team of specialists called the Desert Tortoise Recovery Team. The Plan identifies threats to tortoises and their habitats and recommends actions to recover tortoise populations to the point where they can be delisted.

Table 1: Summary of Laws That Protect Desert Tortoises

*Mojave Population Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 (as amended), sections 7, 9, and 10 Section 7 requires Federal agencies to carry out conservation programs and to ensure their actions will not jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat. Section 9 prohibits take**. Section 10 concerns habitat conservation planning. Civil: up to $25,000
Criminal: up to $50,000 or up to one year year in jail or both
COMMENTS: *Includes California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona north of the Grand Canyon. **Take is defined as "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such activity" (ESA Sect. 3, pt 18).
Arizona Arizona Revised Statutes. Title 17, Game and Fish Prohibits import or transport into the state or sale, trade, or release within the state (17-306). Class 2 misdemeanor: 4 months in jail and/or $750.
Chapter 3, Taking and Handling of Live Wildlife. Article 1, General Regs. Prohibits barter, sale, or offers for sale of any wildlife or parts of wildlife unlawfully taken during a closed season (17-309.D). Class 6 felony: 1 yr in jail and up to $150,000.
Arizona Game & Fish Commission Order 43: Closed season. There is no open season on tortoise collecting or hunting. Revocation/suspension of license.
Rules. Article 4. Live Wildlife Rules. "Restricted live wildlife" (R12-4-406); special license requirements (R12-4-409). Revocation/suspension of license.
COMMENTS: No State authority to regulate the modification of habitat. Desert tortoises possessed without a special license prior to Jan 1, 1988, may be possessed, transported, propagated, and given away (R12-4-407). Possession limit under this regulation is one desert tortoise per person.

The desert tortoise is the official State Reptile.

California Endangered Species Act

California Code of Regulations, Section 670.5(b)(4) of Title 14

State Laws - California Administrative Code, Title 14. 674. Permits to Possess Desert Tortoises (Gopherus)

Prohibiting the import or export of endangered species. No person shall import into this state, export out of this state, or take, possess, purchase, or sell within this state, any species, or any part or product thereof, that the commission determines to be an endangered species or a threatened species, or attempt any of those acts. . .

Desert tortoises may be possessed only under the authority of a permit issued by the department. The department may issue a permit for the possession of a desert tortoise provided the tortoise was legally acquired and possessed prior to March 7, 1973.

The punishment for a violation of any of the provisions is a fine of not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000) or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or both the fine and imprisonment.
COMMENTS: (a) The department may require an applicant for a permit to submit proof of the legal acquisition of any desert tortoise. (b) Applications for a tortoise permit shall be submitted on forms furnished by the department and may be filed with the department at any time. Upon approval of the application, the department shall provide a tag which shall be affixed to the tortoise as directed by the department. (c) No tortoise may be transferred to any other person without prior department approval. (d) Possession of a desert tortoise, regardless of subspecies, except under the authority of a department permit is in violation of this section. Untagged tortoises shall be seized by the department.


The desert tortoise is the official State Reptile.

S. 501.110.1(d) Nevada Revised Statutes

Sect. 503.080.2 Nevada Administrative Code

Unlawful to transport across state lines without the written consent of the Nevada Department of Wildlife  
COMMENTS: No State authority to regulate the modification of habitat
Utah Utah Administrative Code Title 23: Rule 657-3-25 Classified as Prohibited; prohibit collection, importation, transportation, possession, sale, transfer, or release of tortoises into the wild 3rd Degree Felony or as low as a Class B misdemeanor depending on circumstances or seriousness of violation
COMMENTS: No State authority to regulate the modification of habitat, except that Utah Admin. Code Title 23: Rule 657-3-8 states that a person may not disturb the den of any reptile