The Tale Of Tino The Tortoise

By Adam Blackmore

In a man-made desert oasis that has been home to some of the most unique, ever-changing, and fast-moving migratory bird populations for more than a decade, there is a new resident who lives life at a slower pace. The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve in Henderson, Nev., welcomed its first desert tortoise (listed as a threatened species under the United States Federal Endangered Species Act) a little over a year ago. The process was a true collaborative effort among local non-profit organizations, engaged citizens, park maintenance personnel, and recreation staff members. Tino the desert tortoise has called the Preserve home since October 2017, and has become a welcome addition to the 100-acre, nine-pond sanctuary that has thousands of annual visitors from the aviary and human worlds.

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The original outcomes, envisioned by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department in adopting the desert tortoise, were twofold:

1.) Provide a structured habitat to assist with species conservation efforts

2.) Add an exciting new nature and outdoor education amenity to the preserve to be used for a variety of educational purposes.

Preparing For Arrival
At the beginning of the process, parks and recreation staff members and a local desert tortoise adoption organization sought out a suitable man-made habitat with amenities to ensure a comfortable living space for the new arrival. Park staff members immediately began mapping out plans for a wide-berth, open-air oval enclosure with decorative paver walls and a large mound of earthen material with an access point and sleeping area for the tortoise. Within a few months the habitat was ready, and the city partnered again with the local rescue agency, the Tortoise Group, to find the right fit for the space. The group located Tino, a 10-year-old tortoise that had been living in a residential home nearly his entire life. His owner, Carolyn Ahern, had made Tino a bit of a celebrity through her children’s books, including Tino the Tortoise: Adventures in the Grand Canyon.

The Welcome Wagon
Tino’s first day in the new space was celebrated with a full-blown grand opening with students from a local elementary school enjoying a reading from Ahern. City and Desert Tortoise Group officials and administrators were on hand for a ribbon-cutting. The opening ceremonies included the unveiling of a new informational sign to help educate visitors on the various threats facing the desert tortoise, as well as some amazing fun facts about Tino and his specific breed—the Mojave desert tortoise. Tino quickly took to his new surroundings through a group effort to ensure dietary needs were being met, his habitat was kept clean, and he was safe from predators. In addition to the obvious benefit of providing an animal in need with a new home, the addition of Tino to the preserve has also opened the door to a bevy of educational programs and activities for daily visitors, staff-led field trips, and special-event groups. Throughout the fall and winter seasons, staff members can explain the differences between brumation and hibernation, the value of reptiles to the ecosystem, and how they, along with the local and migratory aviary population, play a vital role in nature and should be protected. There was also a popular fun “when will Tino come out” raffle in the spring as staff members counted the days until the brumation period ended. This kept the community and visitors engaged, and a local celebration was held when Tino emerged. These conservation and educational messages are provided through partnerships with the local Audubon Society, the Desert Tortoise Group, and trained and researched city staff members.

These education offerings, combined with an invigorated point of interest for the community, have led to a 12-percent increase in year-over-year attendance at the free-admission preserve. Class enrollments and rental numbers are also increasing, and revenue from gift shop sales has doubled.

Words Of Wisdom
Here are a few recommendations or lessons learned while working through this species conservation, recreation-programming enhancement, and public-education process:

· Ensure that time is allocated for strategic planning. During the initial process, take the time to get all of the right people to the table. Work with local, state, and/or federal agencies specializing in biology, habitat, and wildlife management or regulations. Work with all impacted or participating areas of the parks and recreation department to gain buy-in for the implementation of strategies, including park planning, recreation, parks, and administrators. Include marketing and public-information offices, elected officials, and city/county leadership to help build excitement and credibility with the envisioned project.

· The best-laid plans can run into obstacles. Weather may delay the habitat construction, regulatory language may interrupt the process, or financial resources may suspend one element or another. These issues, in addition to so many others, can be deterrents, but it’s imperative that staff members continue to work with the end goal in mind. During unexpected delays, staff members can focus on programming master plans, educational collateral, additional enhancements to the venue or park to prepare for the prospective influx of visitors, etc.

· Keep your eye on the prize. Once the strategic planning committee has outlined the timelines, goals, and projected benefits from the initiative, use those as motivators to kick off and maintain or improve the project and programs. In this case, the city’s focus was to bring a unique regional-centric amenity into the parks and recreation inventory, which expanded outdoor recreation educational programs and complemented the existing migratory and local bird-education programs.
Ultimately, all of the work that went into ensuring the addition of this 10-year-old, super-friendly, very curious, engaging, threatened desert tortoise has had an immense impact on building community, enhancing natural resources, building habitat-management awareness, and creating programs for hundreds of local youth who may never have had the chance to learn about and enjoy this Southwest reptile. City residents and the thousands of regional, national, and international visitors to the Bird Viewing Preserve look forward to the next 40 to 50 years of having Tino around to remind them how precious and important conservation is to their future.

Adam Blackmore, M.A., CPRE, CPO, is the Recreation Superintendent for the Parks and Recreation Department in Henderson, Nev. Reach him at Adam.Blackmore@cityofhenderson.com.