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Celebrate the desert tortoise


Nick Smirnoff.

This year World Turtle Day®, which also includes tortoises, falls on May 23, turning attention toward the preservation of the official California state reptile: the desert tortoise. I had the privilege of speaking with Nick Smirnoff, a local photographer and former security officer, who once played a crucial role in protecting these desert tortoises.

Smirnoff's journey into desert tortoise conservation began in 2011 when he was hired as a security officer for a construction project in the Oak Creek Pass area, southeast of Tehachapi. However, his responsibilities extended far beyond typical security duties. He and his colleagues underwent training in the delicate art of turtle handling, ensuring they could respond effectively to any needs in the preservation of desert tortoises, as well as their various habitats.

During the construction project, which aimed to minimize environmental impact, designated crossing areas were identified and orange fences were erected to warn traffic. Security personnel like Smirnoff were stationed at these areas during daylight hours, monitoring tortoise activity and ensuring their safe passage, even if it meant stopping vehicular traffic.

Smirnoff emphasized the importance of handling tortoises with care, particularly during mating or nesting seasons. When lifting a tortoise, it's essential to be gentle and cautious to avoid causing any harm. Ideally, you should lift a tortoise only a few inches off the ground to prevent any stress or injury to its legs or shell. If you need to move it, try to slide a flat hand or support underneath its body, lifting just enough to provide support without lifting it too high. Always be mindful of the tortoise's comfort and well-being.

Delving into tortoise ecology, Smirnoff shared that desert tortoises are known to travel several miles, especially during mating and nesting seasons, and can live for an impressive 80 to 150 years.

When construction activities required the relocation of tortoises, careful consideration was given to minimize disruption. Studies have shown that while females can adapt and reproduce normally after being moved short distances, the same cannot be said for males.

See desert tortoises in person at CALM Zoo in Bakersfield (www.calmzoo.org), or visit their natural habitat at the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTRNA) in Jawbone Canyon. It is 39.5 square miles which has been set aside for the desert tortoise. More information

can be found at: http://www.jawbone.org/dtrna/.