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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Shivwits Band, Other Researchers Are Learning More About Desert Tortoises Through Field Work And Collecting Stories

A photo of a tortoise.
Courtesy of Sarah Thomas
Pika'aya means tortoise in the Shivwits dialect of Southern Paiute.

Southern Paiute land in Washington County could hold some important information about Mojave Desert tortoises. To learn more, researchers are taking a holistic approach to studying this endangered animal.

The project is called Pika’aya Tooveep or “Tortoise Country” in Paiute. Part of the endeavor involves students and wildlife biologists surveying the Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians reservation for signs of tortoises, which isn’t usually allowed.

Ann McLuckie is a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. She said the land on either side of the reservation is an important recovery area for the tortoises. Surveying the animals on the reservation will help them understand how much movement there is between the two areas.

“We’re getting a better understanding not only of where tortoises are, but how many are there,” McLuckie said. “And if they’re in high densities or they're just small little pockets here and there.”

Another aspect of the project is collecting stories of the animals from elders. Glenn Rogers is on the Shivwits Band Council and said it will help connect younger generations to the tortoises and their elders.

“They run over them, they kill them and they're still thriving,” Rogers said. “That's the same way with the Paiute people that we're still here, that we're not going to leave.”

He said the tortoises are considered warriors because they are survivors.

Sarah Thomas, with Conserve Southwest Utah, said it’s “ground breaking” to be conducting research like this in Washington County.

“It's a holistic look because it includes scientific data, but also stories and language and songs, if they're shared, from the Shivwits band,” she said. “Anything that they want to share about the desert tortoise is seen as equally valuable to the data that's collected on field sheets.”

McLuckie said the surveying part is expected to be completed sometime this year.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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