/ Modified oct 6, 2015 7:35 p.m.

Desert Tortoise Extinction Unlikely, Agency Says

Iconic animal found only in Arizona, still considered 'Species of Greatest Conservation Need'

Desert tortoise Spot A baby Sonoran desert tortoise. (PHOTO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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By Amanda Solliday, Arizona Science Desk

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that the Sonoran desert tortoise will not be added to the Endangered Species list.

In the United States, the iconic Sonoran desert tortoise is only found in Arizona.

The tortoise became a candidate for the endangered species list in 2010, after environmental advocacy groups petitioned the federal government, citing drastic population declines in some areas.

To make the final decision about listing the species, the government agency used a new model to project population changes due to threats such as habitat loss, climate change and illegal collection of the tortoise, said Steve Spangle, a field supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We had a bunch of outputs from this model that show there’s virtually zero chance of extinction of this species over the next 50 or 60 years,” Spangle said.

The conclusion was also based, in part, on state and federal organization managing 73 percent of the habitat for the tortoise. And population counts indicate there are more than 400,000 Sonoran desert tortoises in the wild in the U.S. and Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cecilia Vigil, a professor of biology at Arizona Western College, said although the Sonoran desert tortoise will not be listed as endangered, she believes conservation efforts for the species are needed.

“We still have to continue with our efforts to protect them, because we could be right back where we were in recent years,” Vigil said.

The state of Arizona still classifies the Sonoran desert tortoise a "Species of Greatest Conservation Need,” and collection of wild tortoises in the United States remains illegal.

The Arizona Science Desk is a collaboration of public broadcasting entities in the state, including Arizona Public Media.

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