With scenic red rock vistas and snow covered mountain backdrops, Washington County Utah is one of the fastest growing communities in the nation. However, it wasn’t always this way. Growth was slow prior to the 1990 federal listing of the Mojave desert tortoise as a threatened species.  Many local leaders and developers feared growth would come to a standstill with the tortoise listing and a critical habitat designation still pending.  Soon after, Washington County formed a steering committee made up of several community representatives to consider a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP).  Such a plan offered the possibility to facilitate both development of the County and conservation of the tortoise. Collaborative efforts including the County, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah State Parks, Bureau of Land Management and local municipal governments led to a 20-year HCP agreement in 1996. As a part of the agreement, Washington County contributed resources to facilitate land acquisitions, exchanges, and conservation easements for nearly 62,000 acres known as the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Nearly 45,000 acres of BLM lands in the Reserve have since been designated by Congress as the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. The County also implemented a number of conservation actions to protect the tortoise including, removal of grazing permits, installation of tortoise-proof fencing, and funded law enforcement, tortoise monitoring and public outreach.

As a result of the HCP, over 350,000 acres of private and state lands were immediately released for development. Another 12,000 acres of tortoise habitat were made eligible for release as the HCP was implemented and tortoises were removed from developing lands. This process led to another success story of the HCP, its tortoise translocation program. Not much was known about the feasibility of tortoise translocation in the mid-1990s. In fact, most biologists believed that tortoises would not survive and some even considered euthanasia as a better alternative. Thankfully, the County, US Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agency opted to conduct a translocation study instead at a remote 5,200 acre area in the Reserve. This unique site was selected for its pristine habitat conditions, even though at the time it did not support any wild tortoises. Since April of 1999, a total of 309 adult tortoises have been released at the site. Most of the tortoises quickly settled into their new habitat and have been thriving and reproducing. There is currently an estimated population of 280 adult tortoises, and many other immature and hatchlings.  Translocation has since been used in many other areas of the tortoise’s range as a way to minimize development impacts, and in some cases like ours, to repopulate a new area.  Washington County continues to grow at a rapid pace in areas outside of the Reserve. Meanwhile, tortoise populations in the Reserve have been increasing over the past 10 years and boast the highest local density anywhere throughout its California, Nevada and Arizona range.