ST. GEORGE — Almost 53 acres of private property in southwestern Utah — vital habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise — were recently acquired through the combined efforts of several agencies and organizations.

The parcel is on the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in Washington County. The Utah Department of Natural Resources, which administers the state’s Endangered Species Mitigation Fund, joined forces with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the county and The Nature Conservancy to acquire the property, where some of the highest observed densities of desert tortoises in the reserve have been found.

“We finally acquired the last piece of the puzzle,” Bill James, DWR’s habitat section assistant chief, said in a statement.

That final piece, a recorded deed from Washington County for its donation of 22.73 acres, recently completed the match for an Endangered Species Section 6 grant that enabled the purchase of 52.72 acres of private property.

Ann McLuckie, a DWR wildlife biologist, said the newly acquired property was one of the largest remaining parcels still in private ownership in the reserve.

“Long-term protection of this entire parcel is vital,” she said. “The parcel supports high numbers of desert tortoise and provides quality habitat for a number of other desert species, too. Acquisition and protection of this property is essential to maintaining the integrity and connectivity of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.”

The Nature Conservancy provided some of the funding needed to match the grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy the land. The Endangered Species Mitigation Fund and Washington County both also supplied additional matches, either as funding or in-kind contribution in the form of land. 

Last week, a proposed 4.5-mile, four-lane highway that has been on Washington County’s wish list for more than two decades received a green light from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land management.

The decision granting the right of way application came after the federal agencies worked with the applicant and Washington County to consider ways to offset the Mojave desert tortoise habitat losses from any approved development in southern Utah.

The BLM approved the Northern Corridor right of way for 1.9 miles on federal lands, and for a total of 4.5 miles on all jurisdictions. The final decision approves the establishment of a 6,813-acre zone within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which will be managed for species conservation. The final decision also requires certain habitat improvements to protect and restore native plant species.

The Mojave desert tortoise, located north and west of the Colorado River in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, was listed as threatened on the federal Endangered Species list in 1990. To help the species recover, the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was created to protect the tortoise populations and their habitat from development.

Today, an estimated five to nine adult desert tortoises per square mile — or roughly 2,011 adults — are found on the reserve. Their population densities are much higher than most other Mojave desert tortoise populations rangewide.