Desert Tortoise Habitat

We have been wanting to build a Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) habitat for some time. Our opportunity finally came last fall and we have finally finished! The plants need to grow up (a LOT) but we need to wait until next summer to get a tortoise anyway. Here in Arizona, the Game and Fish Department regulates the posession of Desert Tortoises. They have lots of useful information on their website at  Basically, if you build a habitat that meets their specifications, they will “adopt out” a tortoise to you. The tortoise is still property of the State of Arizona, but you can keep it and enjoy its company!
It is illegal to capture a Desert Tortoise from the wild or release a Desert Tortoise into the wild. Most of the Tortoises up for adoption were raised in captivity (breeding them in captivity is illegal) and they need to go somewhere. If you see a Desert Tortoise in the wild, observe it and enjoy it – but leave it alone and don’t pick it up!
I got a lot of pictures of the entire process and wanted to share them with you. It was a lot of work, but we really like the way it came out. I’m going to let the pictures tell the whole story.

The Beginning - 12" deep footers around the habitat area. The pond liner will be outside the tortoise pen but is part of the landscaping.

Another picture of the footers with the re-bar visible in the bottom. The habitat wraps around our windmill.

We used almost 5 yards of cement in the footings! They are 12" deep so a Tortoise can't dig under them. We had to wheelbarrow the cement across to the other side because our landscaping wouldn't allow for truck access everywhere.

The footings are poured! We made a shallow cement dish for the Tortoise to soak in or drink from out of extra cement. The other piles are also extra cement that we let dry before removing it and using it as fill.

A view of the footings from the top of the windmill!

A view of the footings at sunset! The block begins tomorrow!

Here is Dan mixing mortar for the first row of block.

The first row of block is in place. Re-bar was drilled into the footing and extends up to the top of the wall where it is tied into a piece of re-bar that goes around the top of the wall. Things are taking shape!

The three rows of block are up! An opening has been left so loads of mortar can be moved to the far side of the pen. There are lots of wide cracks in-between blocks on the tight radius corners that need to be pre-filled before the stucco goes on. It is amazing how much material this project took and how much it all weighed!!!

The re-bar coming up from the footing is tied into re-bar inside the top row of block, then the top row of block was filled full of mortar (the "bond-beam"). There is a paper layer in-between the second and third row of block that stops the mortar from going all the way down except for one "cell" of block every four feet which is full all the way to the ground with re-bar in it. Like I said, there is a lot of material in this thing! You can also see the Tortoise burrow in the center. We poured a thin cement top on it (with re-bar in it) and then covered it with soil for insulation.

Here is an overview with all the block and stucco work done. It rained during the final coat of stucco which caused runs and drips to form. We were after an "old adobe" look and didn't like the way the rain made the drips, but it has "grown" on us and I think it adds to the "look". You can see the Tortoise water dish in place in the pen and the roof of the burrow on the right in front of the base of the windmill.

Closeup of the "old adobe look" wall, complete with unintended drips caused by the rain during the final coat of stucco. Do you like it?

Closeup showing the water dish and burrow. We still need to add soil on top of the burrow for insulation, but that is the next step!

Here comes the dirt! The "native" soil in our yard is not really soil at all - just sand, gravel and rocks. The substrate in a Tortoise pen isn't supposed to be rock or gravel because they may ingest it and get stopped up. We got a number of tons of native soil from Congress AZ (I have not seen anything like this anywhere else - it is really soil with hardly a rock in it!!!). We are moving this into the pen from the dump trailer and covering everything with 3-4" of nice soft Congress dirt! We put about 8" of soil on top of the burrow for insulation. Now, seeding and a little landscaping! We have filled in around the pond at the base of the windmill - again, the Tortoise will not have access to this pond, water this deep would drown a Desert Tortoise!

Detail shot of the "well casing fountain". Note: there is no well here, we are recirculating the water from the pond!

Here is the entire habitat!

Here is the habitat from another angle. In this shot you can really see how the wall follows the lay of the land.

Inside the pen, you can see the den and the water dish. The antler sheds are for the Tortoise to chew on for extra calcium. I have small rock piles around the plants to give them a little protection. All the plants in the habitat are native plants that are used as food for Desert Tortoises. The entire inside of the habitat has been seeded with a mix of 14 species of native grasses that are used by Tortoises for grazing. I still need to put a prickly pear cactus in the pen but I am waiting for the cut pads to callus over before I plant them. Then, it will just be a matter of waiting for things to grow up a lot and we will be ready to submit our application!

 I want to try to explain the water and irrigation system. I am using the pond liner and some pumps I got from a friend who was tearing them out. I have a small pump in the pond that will go on for a few minutes several times a day and will feed new water into the Tortoise dish. The dish will overflow and the water will run down to several of the plants in the pen. We have a float in the pond that will keep the level of the water in the pond constant. When water is pumped into the Tortoise dish, replacement water will be added to the pond automatically.  

We also have a recirculating pump in the pond that moves water into the well casing fountain and back into the pond. The water is also being fed through a UV sterilizer. This will aerate the water in the pond and keep it from getting stagnant. It looks neat too! I still need to put in a few more plants around the pond at the base of the windmill to disguise some of the tubes and wires. 

The plants around the pond are watered with the drip system from the yard. We have a fertilizer pump on this drip system so I didn’t want to use that water in the Tortoise pen. 

If you would be interested in doing something like this, I would be glad to visit with you about it, do consulting and design work, or build it for you. Whatever you like, just give me a call!