By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor
Soon sharing living quarters at Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve with the coyotes, cottontail rabbits, frogs and over 200 species of birds will be a desert tortoise.
Six Boy Scouts from Troop 684 have pitched an Eagle Scout project to build a tortoise habitat that got a green light by Town Council recently. The annual cost to the town for the habitat’s upkeep is $1,100, along with staff time.
The newcomer’s impending arrival raised some concerns.
“I’m totally 100 percent in support of Boy Scout projects at the preserve,” said Councilman Scott Anderson at the Oct. 18 meeting. “It’s placing a tortoise in there full time I have a problem with.”
Anderson, as the town’s former planning director, created the 101-acre preserve at Greenfield and Guadalupe roads in 1999. He also has a desert tortoise.
The preserve’s naturalist Jennie Rambo said the desert tortoise is a protected species and that if the town adopts one from Arizona Game and Fish, it will be responsible for its health and safety.
The agency in September reported it has 80 desert tortoises eligible for adoption.
The reptile, which is found in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Arizona law has prohibited removal of desert tortoises from the wild since 1988.
Anderson asked Rambo about the effect on a tortoise’s behavior when it is kept full-time in an enclosure.
Rambo said tortoises hibernate from October to April and during early spring and late fall, they may emerge for a couple of hours in the morning and possibly again at dusk.
“They spend most of their life underground,” she said.
She added the tortoise’s presence will not affect other wildlife at the preserve, but it faced possible threat from predators such as coyotes that can easily jump over the 2-foot- to 3-foot-tall enclosure. Cottontail rabbits also can hop over the fence and eat the tortoise’s food.
Another concern, she said, is the tortoise’s health depends on its diet, which is largely comprised of high-fiber plants, and grocery produce can be fed, but only as a supplement.
Anderson asked about Fish and Game’s adoption criteria. The state agency only takes in and adopts out Sonoran desert tortoises.
Rambo said the agency has a number of requirements that must be met in order for someone to become a custodian.
She said she was told it would be unlikely the agency would approve the adoption given the proposed enclosure is not adequate to protect against other animals from entering the habitat or prevent the desert tortoise from digging underneath and escaping and encountering hazards in the preserve, like the seven large recharge ponds.
Also, the absence of a perimeter fence with a locking gate around the enclosure to prevent the public from entering the habitat, especially at night, she added.
Rambo said she has talked with counterparts from areas that have live tortoise exhibits – Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa and and Chandler’s Veterans Oasis Park.
She said Usery reported no issues and Chandler has reported tortoises stolen from its habitat, which has a concrete wall and iron-bar fencing.
Anderson said the ideal venue would be a temporary enclosure accompanied by a program educating the public on how to adopt and care for tortoises.
“I don’t think it would be clear as a great project for a tortoise to be put in full-time and it got stolen,” he said.
Staff is looking at placing the habitat outside of the Southeast Regional Library near an existing irrigation line, which will help with water for the tortoise, according to Jennifer Lauria, program coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department.
That site, adjacent to the preserve, is more visible and close to a parking lot, she said. And, the habitat can piggy back on the security system already installed at the library to deter any harm to the tortoise, Lauria said.
The project involves six phases – one for each of the six scouts to earn their Eagle Scout rank. Each phase will involve consultation and approval from park staff, Lauria said.
The phases include building the enclosure, supplying irrigation for the plants, landscaping the habitat and building a tortoise mound, where the reptile can hibernate.
Staff proposes a six- to 12-month trial period, and hopefully there won’t be any vandalism to the habitat or theft of the tortoise, she added.
Staff will take care of feeding the tortoise and monitoring the enclosure, according to Lauria.
The Gilbert Parks and Recreation Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports the town’s parks and programs, has indicated it can support the habitat financially if needed, she added.
She said another approach is to allow groups to adopt the habitat, which they can then help with feeding and caring for the tortoise.
The youth’s scout group has a number of scout leaders and previous scout leaders who have indicated interest in raising funds for the habitat, according to staff.
The scouts also want to involve local businesses who might be interested in donating materials and being part of the project.
As such, there will be an annual cost of $1,110 to Gilbert for the habitat – $500 for potential veterinary care, $300 for supplemental food and $300 for the replenishment of plants in the enclosure, according to Lauria. The cost will be absorbed into the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget, she said.
Part of the council’s unanimous approval included Mayor Jenn Daniels’ suggestion the scouts work with Anderson, who will find the resources to ensure their project succeeds.
The timeline to build the habitat is about three to four months, Laura said. She later said she was unsure when the scouts will begin the project.
The tortoise habitat joins other educational areas featured in the preserve such as an ethnobotanical garden, a paleontology dig site, gardens for pollinators, including a hummingbird garden and butterfly garden, plus a state-of-the-art observatory and hilltop outdoor classroom.
To adopt a tortoise: azgfd.gov/tortoise.