Extinction is a fact of life. Species that are healthy and environmentally adaptive survive, those that are not adaptive do not. It is a natural process.

But ever since man stepped into the picture, the "natural" process that ruled the earth for millions of years has been irreversibly altered. Unlike any other species, man controls his environment - often to the detriment of other species around him."It becomes purely a philosophical question: Why should we even bother with endangered species?" says University of Florida researcher Elliott Jacobson. "It's becomes a question of what we as human beings owe the planet."

Jacobson is in southwestern Utah studying ways to preserve the desert tortoise, one of 28 endangered or threatened species in Utah. Across the nation, some 582 plants and animals are on the verge of extinction.

In Washington County - home to seven endangered species, with two more candidate species about to be added - the desert tortoise has become a focal point for future attempts to save Utah's endangered species of all kinds.

On one side, the tortoise issue pits land developers trying to satisfy unprecedented growth demands. On the other are biologists, conservationists and others who believe mankind has a moral responsibility to live with, not destroy, the surrounding life forms.

Researchers from across the United States are in Utah to study the desert tortoise and its Utah habitat. The Utah tortoise is so unique, in fact, some say it may represent a separate species of desert tortoise.

"The animals here in Utah have evolved over a long period of time, and they are adapted to this particular environment, which is unique," Jacobson said.

The desert around St. George is the only one like it anywhere in the nation. The Great Basin desert, the Mojave desert and the Sonoran desert all converge in southwestern Utah, creating a unique ecosystem.

Jacobson is joined by researchers from Colorado State University, Brigham Young University, the University of California-Riverside, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, three regions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, California and Utah.

Most are part of the Desert Tortoise Recovery Team, which is gathering information on the day-to-day behavior of tortoises in order to develop a long-range management plan of desert tortoises, their habitat and their nutritional needs.

Local residents scoff, saying the desert tortoise is abundant throughout Washington County. But researchers say it is deceptive to look at just numbers of tortoises.

"The problem with listing something as endangered is that they usually are not listed until the numbers are dangerously low, and in many cases until the numbers are so low the animals are doomed," Jacobson said.

Though tortoise numbers continue to decline, researchers hope the desert tortoise becomes a protected species before the tortoise population reaches the critical level of no recovery.

"Still, populations are so severely effected it may take 50 to 100 years to bring it back. We just don't know yet," Jacobson said.

Officially, the desert tortoise habitat stretches from southwestern Utah through the southern Nevada desert and into California and Arizona.

Jacobson believes the health of plants and animal species is a barometer of the health of the human species. And when people make the effort to live in harmony with plants and animals, the Earth is a better place for people.

"Eighty percent of the population has no view whatsoever of animals or plants or how they fit into the scheme of life. And each day there are fewer and fewer wild places for these animals to go," Jacobson says.

"We have this wild West heritage with vast pieces of land to be conquered and owned. But this is an issue of more than individual rights. People have to start caring about the whole thing, the big picture."

The big picture in Washington County is inalterably affected by endangered species. The Endangered Species Act is one of the most far-reaching laws ever enacted by Congress, giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wide-ranging authority to protect habitat regardless of who owns the land.

Congress unequivocally stated that threatened and endangered species are "of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the nation and its people." Attempts to loosen the restrictions or challenge the law in court have failed.

That has not gone unnoticed in Washington County, which is developing a plan to enhance endangered-species habitat. Called a Habitat Conservation Plan, the plan will likely involve the creation of new tortoise habitat in high potential areas, while existing habitat in marginal areas will be opened to new development. Tortoises in areas to be developed will then be moved or put up for adoption by interested families.