Texas tortoises and Texas horned lizards are dwindling – but there are ways to help

With the new Texas Tortoise Task Force, regular Texans can contribute to conservation research.

By Aislyn GaddisJune 12, 2024 3:22 pm,

The Texas tortoise and the Texas horned lizard are both considered threatened by the state. Scientists trying to help face a big challenge in their research: trying to find them, as both animals can be very hard to spot and track – and consequently hard to study.

But Texas Monthly reports there’s a new way for Texans to help: the Texas Tortoise Task Force. Conservationist and Texas master naturalist Mary Jo Bogatto owns a ranch in Cameron County where she and her dog, Scout, work to help the animals. She joined the Standard to share more about the conservation efforts.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Both the Texas tortoise and the Texas horned lizard are considered threatened by the state. What kind of threats do they face? 

Mary Jo Bogatto: Well, here on Cactus Creek Ranch, they have developed some kind of an abnormal coloring on their scutes and on their shell. So I was asking around, trying to find someone to come do research for me, asking if it was harmful to them, if I needed to treat them.

And I was introduced to Jackie with the Texas tortoise research at a university in Corpus. And she came and started doing studies, additional to her own, on the tortoise to find out what is really happening with our tortoises.

So in order to help her find the tortoises, I started training my dog, Scout. And Scout will now find tortoises and horned lizards because when we’re out and about, you know, they’re both right there together, especially at this time of the season – April, May, June – they’re very active, so it’s easier to find them that way. 

Tell us a little bit about how that works. How how does Scout alert you that he’s helped in this conservation effort? 

Usually Scout, he’ll be jumping around. He’s an Australian Shepherd. I’ll tell him “go find it,” and he’ll get very excited. Or he’ll sit and look at me, or he’s making eye contact with me.

Because we are in so deep South Texas, we have some very large rattlesnakes. At this time, I am trying to train him to stay on the vehicle, which is an open, low vehicle, and alert me from the vehicle. He’s in the process of having his rattlesnake shots. But yesterday he found me another horned lizard. 

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So tell me, why are the Texas tortoise and the Texas horned lizard important to protect? 

Well, their cuteness is amazing, but I don’t know if everybody sees them that way. The horned lizard looks like a little miniature dinosaur. It’s not very afraid of anything, even Scout; he will bow up to Scout. And, as you know, he’s only a couple inches.

And the Texas tortoise is just a beautiful creature to look at. And everybody votes for the underdog. Here at the ranch, we have been protecting them for 30 years, and this year has been one of the most amazing years yet for us to see so many, that people driving in to visit can look down and look underneath my horned lizard houses that I invented for them, and there’ll be a horned lizard. Or there might be one just coming up to the front door and people will go, “there’s a horned lizard.”

So, all of my efforts of limiting driving and off road and just being all native and trying to make people more aware of what it takes to protect them – and protect their food source and their habitat – is beginning to pay off.

But there is still a lot of research that needs to be done. And so I’ve been working with students for 30 years. They bring me this study that they’ve done, maybe two or three years of their information, and then they leave and go into another profession.

So this year I started Circle of Hope, and a bunch of the kids, they’re giving me all their information. I contacted the universities. We’re setting up a place to where, if you wanted to come work on horned lizards or tortoises, you could reach out to me, and I can hand you research from the past 30 years that is available on this ranch.

So we go past, present and future, maybe bringing in all of the information together to help preserve these wonderful animals. 

There’s a scientist that has worked on your ranch to research the tortoises that started the Texas Tortoise Task Force online, where regular people can can help with this effort. How can listeners out there get involved in this conservation? And again, maybe remind people where these tortoises are found? 

Well, I would highly recommend, JT started – and I just love her for this – her own sticker, and it says pecks for tortoises backs. And, you can call the number and learn about tortoises.

But if you wanted to really help, Texas Master Naturalist Program in Texas Parks and Wildlife is an amazing program that if you’re really interested in helping any kind of critters – individually or a group of habitat – you really need to get involved. And you can do this if you’re retired, if you’re a younger person; you can do it with your family if you wanted to. But I highly suggest that program. 

You talked about this time of year being a good time to spot the tortoises, and they’re out there eating the cactus fruit – the tunas, as they’re known in Spanish. Describe what it’s like to see the little tortoises gorging themselves. 

Well, I guess there’s really not a better sight, like kid with Kool-Aid on its lips, but a tortoise with the same kind of expression with his juice just running out of his mouth. It’s left such an impression on me that I got married two years ago, and I put two tortoises on my wedding dress eating the cactus tuna. 

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