Following an increase in tortoise deaths, visitors to Snow Canyon asked to watch for animals on roadway

Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — While typically not a regular occurrence at Snow Canyon State Park, park officials have been seeing an increase in desert tortoise deaths on the 4-mile stretch of road to runs through the canyon.

The main road through Snow Canyon State Park of off SR-18, Washington County, Utah, May 18, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

With increasing visitation to the canyon, park officials want to remind visitors to watch out for tortoises and other animals on the roadway.

Last Sunday, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources posted on Facebook that three Mojave desert tortoises had been killed by vehicles at Snow Canyon State Park.

“This species is federally listed as threatened,” the post states. “You can help ensure their safety by checking behind your tires (they hide there for shade sometimes) and following posted speed limits when you’re spending time in the southwestern part of the state.”

There has been a gradual increase in incidents over the last three years as visitation to the park has increased, said Kristen Comella, Snow Canyon State Park manager.

“It’s a worry any time the desert tortoises are active,” Comella said.

The tortoises that tend to fall victim to being run on are younger – usually hatchings or a year of two old – due to their size. People on the road through Snow Canyon may be keeping an eye out for a full-grown tortoise and not one as small as 2 inches long, she said.

Unlike the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which has meshed tortoise fencing along its borders and roadways in order to keep the tortoises safe, Snow Canyon lacks this measure as it is not considered practical due to how many parking lots and roads there are off the main road.

Within the overall desert reserve, potential human-caused threats to the tortoises are typically hikers who go off-trail and unleashed dogs, not vehicles.

“Dogs off their leashes are a constant issue,” Snow said, adding that unleashed dogs can do harm to the protected desert tortoise as well as other creatures that reside in the reserve.

Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Nov. 2, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Red Cliff’s Desert Reserve, St. George News

Though the desert reserve has signage at each of the trailheads leading into it noting restrictions on unleashed dogs and off-trail hiking, those items tend to be “flagrantly disregarded,” Snow said.

Snow Canyon is located within the desert reserve with its primary road bisecting tortoise habitat.

For the last 15 years, Snow Canyon State Park has worked to educate the populace and visitors about being mindful of the desert tortoise when they enter the park.

These efforts have included adding information to the park’s brochure about the desert tortoise that is given to visitors. This information includes how to pick up and remove the tortoise from the roadway, Comella said.

There are also signs at trailheads reminding visitors to respect the tortoise and other wildlife that call the park home. Traffic signs at either end of the park’s main road featuring a car, cyclist and tortoise with a note to “share the road” are posted, as are 25 mph speed limit signs.

“We’ve made an attempt for many, many years to put messaging out there, but, unfortunately, the problem seems to be increasing,” Comella said.

Snow Canyon State Park, Washington County, Utah, May 18, 2013 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

With the weather forecast predicting potentially mild temperatures, Comella said the park is preparing for the possibility of receiving a higher volume of visitors compared to prior Memorial Day holiday weekends.

“We’re not having a usual year,” the park manager said, adding that if necessary, the park is prepared to turn visitors away at the gate if it reaches parking capacity during the day. Similar actions have been occurring regularly at Sand Hollow, Quail Creek and Gunlock state parks for nearly a month now.

As for the Mojave desert tortoise, visitors to the park have a healthy respect for the animal and often visit in hopes of catching a glimpse of the creature, Comella said.

“They’re a big draw here,” Comella said.

Overall, Comella asks park visitors to pay attention and “be aware of there are a lot of creatures in Snow Canyon that call Snow Canyon home, not just the desert tortoise.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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