Texas Tortoise and Cattle Can Coexist

Conventional wisdom says that tortoises and cattle don’t mix. But new research shows that the Texas tortoise and cattle can share rangelands as long as the grazing is managed.

“Generalities about the effect of cattle grazing on North American tortoises should be avoided,” say Richard Kazmaier of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and his co-authors.

Most tortoises live in dry areas that are ideal for rangeland, and livestock grazing has been implicated in the decline of tortoises in Argentina, southern Morocco, and the Turkmen Republic. Grazing also is thought to threaten the desert tortoise, one of four tortoise species in North America. However, there is little direct evidence to support this belief.

Kazmaier and his colleagues studied the effects of moderate grazing on the Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri), which lives primarily on privately-owned rangelands in southern Texas and northeastern Mexico. They compared tortoise populations in grazed and ungrazed pastures in the 6150-ha Chaparral Wildlife Management Area in southern Texas. Each grazed pasture had up to 23 steers/acre for a 3-8 week rotation between October and May, when the tortoises typically hibernate.

To compare the tortoise populations, Kazmaier and his colleagues evaluated factors including abundance, size, growth rate, and adult survival. They found no differences in these factors between tortoises in grazed and ungrazed pastures and so concluded that this moderate grazing regime has little if any effect on them.

However, the researchers stressed that there are some caveats. For instance, although the study area had been grazed previously, the current grazing regime began only six years ago. Thus, this work would not reveal long-term effects of moderate grazing on the Texas tortoise and its habitat. Second, they caution that their work should not be applied to the desert tortoise, in part because the Texas tortoise evolved in the presence of large grazers such as bison, but the desert tortoise did not.

—Robin Meadows

For more Information
Kazmaier, R.T., E.C. Hellgren, D.C. Ruthven III, and D.R. Synatzke. 2001. Effects of grazing on the demography and growth of the Texas tortoise. Conservation Biology 15(4):1091-1101

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