CSU recently debuted our Certified Tortoise Defender Program for Washington County school children to learn stewardship principles for protecting threatened species in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area/Desert Reserve. This wildly popular program supports youth in experiencing a “Day in the Life of a Tortoise” before reciting the Tortoise Defender Oath and earning their special Tortoise Defender Badges.

Utah Common Core science standards underpin the program. Strand 1.2 The Needs of Living Things and Their Offspring and Strand 2.2 Living Things and Their Habitats introduce students to animal environments and adaptations specific to the desert tortoise. After learning about tortoise adaptations, including the canteen-like bladder that provides all the water a tortoise may need for an entire year, students play three rounds of a “Day in the Life of a Tortoise” game.

In the first round, a brave “tortoise” wears a green backpack representing their shell and holds a soup ladle filled with water representing their tortoise bladder. The tortoise forages for desert wildflowers and plants while keeping as much water in their bladder as possible. Every drop is precious!

In the second round, predators including ravens, Gila monsters, coyotes and kit foxes, participate.  With gusto, these predators swoop, waddle, lope or trot onto the playing field and place their predator card on the shell of the tortoise, signifying an “attack.” The tortoise tries not to spill any water as it faces predators while picking up the plants it needs to eat.

In the third, and toughest, round, humans enter the mix.  In addition to natural predators, the tortoise deals with human impacts like walking off trail, littering, dogs off leash, and human encounters. We talk about how people make common mistakes that harm tortoises, not on purpose, but because they haven’t learned how to be Tortoise Defenders yet…

At the end of the game, we compare the levels of water left in the tortoise bladders and discuss the critical role that humans play in helping threatened species survive. Students are asked to fill in the blank, “When I was a tortoise, I learned that ________________ .”  Answers range from, “I learned that I need people to respect me so I can live” to the personal, “I learned that crazy Shelby (the student’s cocker spaniel) can’t run wild in the desert anymore. She’s safer on a leash anyway.”

Finally, students raise their right hands, repeat the Tortoise Defender Oath, and receive their badges.

Certifying tortoise defenders is a deeply heartwarming experience. Kids are naturally empathetic. It’s easy for them to really feel the struggle of a tortoise dealing with the impacts of Gila monsters and hiking boots, or predators and poachers. This is the right time to begin instilling a strong conservation ethic that will support children and the places and species they live in the future and empower them to educate their friends and family.

Since March 2022, CSU has “deputized” 475 Certified Tortoise Defenders at Tonaquint Nature Center Field Trips for Washington County first and second graders. At Get Outdoors Day, CSU deputized an additional 30 tortoise defenders of all ages. A key component of this program is the participation of parents and chaperones. They love to film their kids navigating the world as tough tortoises, and learn right alongside the little ones why it’s so important to never touch a wild tortoise (they might pee and lose their precious water!)

If you are a teacher, educator, or scout troop leader who would like to schedule a Certified Tortoise Defender session for your kids, including a visit from Tu-wee the Tortoise, please reach out to sarah@conserveswu.org!

And keep your eye out for Certified Tortoise Defenders on a trail near you! They may or may not be wearing badges, but they’ll definitely be sticking to the trail, observing tortoises from a respectful distance, and keeping their dogs on leash. Furthermore, many of them would be willing to have an impassioned, somewhat sassy, conversation with you about why you should follow their example!

Your donations to CSU support young stewards and tortoise defenders. Thank you!