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Game & Fish comes to the rescue, saves tortoise

Brian Miller of Arizona Fish and Game Department used an extension ladder and rappelling rope to rescue a desert tortoise that had fallen into an abandoned mine shaft in the Wikieup area. The tortoise was in poor health, but is recuperating nicely.

Courtesy/AZGFD

Brian Miller of Arizona Fish and Game Department used an extension ladder and rappelling rope to rescue a desert tortoise that had fallen into an abandoned mine shaft in the Wikieup area. The tortoise was in poor health, but is recuperating nicely.

KINGMAN – This desert tortoise is going to have the best Christmas of his endangered life.

He’d slipped into an abandoned mine shaft in the Thompson Canyon area near Wikieup and was rescued by Arizona Game and Fish officials after a call from an off-road vehicle rider.

“It’s a great story with a happy ending,” Dee Kephart, habitat evaluation and land manager for Arizona Game and Fish, said Wednesday.

Her Kingman office was contacted by the BLM in October after the rider came across the tortoise in an old prospector mine shaft that was about 30 feet wide and 20 to 25 feet deep.

The rider, J.C. Sanders of Lake Havasu City, sent pictures of the mine shaft with GPS coordinates and general directions, and Game and Fish came up with a plan to rescue the tortoise the next morning.

The sides of the mine shaft were too steep to climb, so Brian Miller of Game and Fish used an extension ladder and rappelling ropes to get to the tortoise. Assisting in the rescue operation were Kephart, wildlife manager Debra Groves and Bill Henak.

“The tortoise was extremely dehydrated and very emaciated,” Kephart said. “He had been in there for quite a while. We immediately soaked him in the field, but after looking at him closely, we found he was extremely light, had scarring on his legs, a swollen joint on this back leg, and had worn down his front toenails to nothing.”

If the tortoise was released back into the wild, he probably wouldn’t make it through the winter, Kephart determined. It’s already late fall, the reptile was in poor shape and probably would never be able to “gain sustenance” so late in the season, she said.

“With his front toenails completely gone, he probably would not be able to even dig a burrow in time to get out of the winter season, so we are rehabilitating him through the winter,” Kephart said.

He’s recuperating nicely at her home, where she has another desert tortoise. He has gained almost a pound in weight and is eating regularly.

“He goes out every morning and runs around and eats,” she said.

Several people have expressed interest in adopting the tortoise when he’s healthy enough, but Kephart said he’ll probably stay with her.

“This guy’s kind of special, just the circumstances of where we found him,” she said.

It’s the first time Kephart has received a report of a tortoise falling into a mine shaft in her 10 years with the agency, and she credited the off-road rider for calling it in.

“He was probably eating vegetation around the mine shaft and lost his footing,” she surmised.