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Army seeks to move more than 1,100 desert tortoises


As it prepares to expand training operations at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert, the U.S. Army is again proposing to move more than 1,100 threatened California desert tortoises -- an unprecedented number of an endangered species that has not fared well during previous relocations.

 The Army is seeking the approval of the federal Bureau of Land Management to move the tortoises from nearly 100,000 acres in portions of the National Training Center to lands managed by the BLM. The environmental assessment is under BLM review and the proposed action is open for a 15-day public comment period.

Moving desert tortoises is not always successful. The Army relocated more than 600 of the animals last year but suspended the $8.7-million program after the first phase when officials noted high mortality rates among the tortoises, chiefly because of coyotes.

About 90 animals were found dead from suspected coyote predation. But Clarence Everly, natural and cultural resources program manager at Ft. Irwin, said only one animal died during the relocation.

The sheer numbers of tortoises proposed to be moved in this latest operation, beginning next spring through 2012, alarms conservationists.

"Nothing's ever been done on this scale before," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, who says a total of 252 tortoises have died in the translocation area. "Every time the animals recognize that they don’t know where they are, they have some built-in mechanism that tells them to head for home and they make a break for home."

In the last move, some tortoises traveled up to five or six miles to get back to their home range, Anderson said.

The relocation of desert tortoises from Ft. Irwin, northeast of Barstow, to the drought-ravaged western Mojave puts more pressure on the species, whose population is already crashing, in part because of an upper respiratory disease that afflicts some animals. Everly said the Army is blood testing every tortoise and will quarantine any found to have the disease.
-- Julie Cart 

Photo: Desert tortoise. Credit: Rachel Wilson

Comments () | Archives (45)

The comments to this entry are closed.

@Bernard Forand

Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD) in the desert tortoise is not caused by pollutants. It is caused by environmental stressors such as poor diet or overcrowding of the species.

I agree that the Ivanpah Solar facility that they are building is a step in the right direction, but the desert tortoise is a crucial organism to the desert environment and the location they are building upon is a major migratory route that the tortoise take.

Tortoises create burrows for hibernation and to escape unfavorable temperatures or weather conditions. The burrow is also used by many other desert species. Losing the desert tortoise in the Mojave region may cause a domino effect and result in the loss of more organisms.

Respiratory ailment? Could pollutants from the atmosphere have anything to do with it? Pollutants from combustible exhaust? Here is solar system that would reduce those pollutants from reducing coal, oil and gaseous generations and they seek to continue to allow this to combustible generation to continue? Suspect their are weeds a growing in this environmental Fantasia.

I don't think I've ever even seen the endangered desert turtle in the 30 years I've lived in Southern California. It's time to "draw the line in the sand" at the doorstep of the Mojave Desert. Why? Please take a moment to go outside and listen for the sound of birds singing and chirping. If you can't hear them, they no longer exist where you live either. The ecosystem is collapsing before our very eyes. It's worse than we think. I live on the edge of the Mojave Desert and very rural. I've never seen a single deer and it is very sparse of any life. Sand Canyon used to be vibrant with migratory birds and frogs but now there are wind turbines, a freeway, train tracks and barbed wire, not to mention planned business parks and tract housing. The persistent encroachment is deadly. I personally feel it is the highest crime of treason and against humanity to force me to breathe polluted, cancer causing fossil fuel fumes, water with high levels of pollutants, where fish is no longer safe to eat, against my will. Then there are pesticides and herbicides. Check out the web documentary called The World According to Monsanto, Environmental Memory, as primers.

UCTV (9412), Research Channel (9400), Free Speech TV and Sundance Channels air documentaries that are far removed from the censored and biased footage & sound bites we've all grown up on. is a highly recommended site. The same documentaries that air on TV can be seen on their website. The Charles Revelle series on climate change are hosted by explorers, scientists, physicist and professors with life experience at the earth's poles, seas and space. Politicians, global business interests, agribusiness and developers get time too.

Food for thought. Equador's Constitution include strong, specific language that protects their ecosystems...they have a very rich country indeed:

Earth IS the Garden of Eden so why are we allowing the big oil, coal, politicians and rich developers and profiteers to poison, manipulate and almost certainly cause the extinction of all life on our once wonderous island called Earth. Cord blood from newborn babies have high levels of pollutants and metals. The oceans have huge amounts of plastics. Plastics by the way do not break down. The pieces just get smaller and minute. The fish in our oceans injest the plastic, then we eat the plasticized fish.

Desert tortoises and other wildlife survive in the harshest of desert
environments. Those of us who are lucky enough to co-exist with
these wonderful creatures appreciate their tenacity and beauty.
These tortoises are an endangered species and relocation would
certainly be a disaster. I would plead with the US Army to stop
this proposition. Please let us enjoy the few tortoises that are left.

LP/29 Palms

There's a whole lot of ignorance in the comments on this article. The value of Ft. Irwin, which has been an Army training center since WWII, is its vast area in which tanks and other vehicles can maneuver realistically as they would on an actual battlefield. There is no substitute for this experience, and nowhere else to do it. The Army wants to move the tortoises so it doesn't accidentally run some of them over and kill them. A few of you should take a look at a map sometime and then it might dawn on you that most of our California desert is no longer open land--it's towns, and freeways, and parks. Almost the entire desert is either developed or set aside for other purposes. "Go train somewhere else" is a stupid comment besides being an impossibility.

I understand the concern for human lives that has been shared, but we humans are a lot more flexible and adaptable than tortoises. It saddens me to see that someone clearly doesn't understand (or maybe doesn't care) that relocation really doesn't work, and that it has multiple negative physical consequences for a species that is already endangered.

I've lived in the desert for 40 years, and I like the tortoises.

Are they going to help kill al Qaeda and the Taliban who, as we all recall, declared war on the US 10+ years ago?

If not, let us do our level best to keep them out of harm's way.

Leave the turtles alone! They have more right to that land than the Army--or humans in general.

Please do NOT relocate the Desert Tortoises. There has been documented mortality due to heavy equipment crushing their burrows. They hibernate in their burrows for a good part of the year and will virtually always return to their original burrows. It is not a good idea to relocat them. The easiest way to protect them is to let them live where they are.
Terry Barber

The BLM news release announcing the availability of the Environmental Assessment (EA) for this proposed BLM/Army desert tortoise translocation is located at the web url below. It provides information on how to obtain the EA for review and how to submit comments. Unfortunately, the 15-day comment period deadline is August 14th, and already half over. I think BLM should have provided a longer review and comment period.

Why do we have to allow the US Army invade our Calfiornia Desert? Haven't there been enough areas covered by the US Army? I would love to adopt a few of the Desert Tortoises myself. I have a yard and I can adopt a few of them to live here at my home in California. I think they should allow the tortoises to stay where they are. Why can't the US Army find another location to work at? And what does the US Army need the Mojave Desert for? It is unfair to break through nature like that and use it for the Army. Let me know if I can daopt a few of the Tortioses. Thanks

The Army is shrinking, training is supposed to be emphasizing anti terror, But they still need more training area--- give me a break!!!

What the army needs is to get of its brass butt and stop preparing for the last war.

I agree with the folks that these tortoises should NOT be re-located, since it has been proven in countless studies that show 1) they can die just from the stress of being handled, and 2) they will most likely try to return to their home range, which puts them at increased risk for death by predation. And, what happens, if they do end up returning home..they will either be moved again (and likely die) or die from the activity going on in the site that used to be their home. I say that since the army knows how many tortoises are living where they want to expand, then, by common sense, find another location that doenst have the high tortoise density! Why are such simple things so hard for some to understand?

Good move and step in the right direction for the DOD, who in fact has in the recent time frame been doing more than just lip service towards using a lighter hand on the land, if only in amelioration of ongoing impacts. Still a long way to go, and those tortoise represent the perfected genetic component for what was onc,e and in all rights should be again, a functioning ecosystem. Those who know the desert habitat of these tortoise know that its evident baren-ness is an artifact of our poor understanding of desert ecology and the past record of misguided resource management in pursuit of unsustainable quantities and rates. The tortoise, and their affiliated predecessors (who one day too may be, in the presence of a surrogate sub-species of giant tortoise,re-introduced) were major grazing animals, distributing mega tons of digested organic nutrients into the desert and keeping its nutrients cycling.
As scientific awareness of the full accounting of nature's invaluable services rises, we will be obligated to observe it, and we really must, to further earth justice, and sloppy book-keeping. In short those tortoises keep even the present degraded desert that we mostly see around us from being an even less productive wasteland. Nature's incredibly resistant and robust and clearly if there's a way to help it maintain its vigor we are smart to do it.
Nothing would make me happier that to think ideas like it are spreading.

It seems that we have more information than ever to make a good decision regarding how to protect these tortoises. Biologists say moving them has not been successful in the past so why suspect a different outcome now? Protect the desert tortoise population where they are right now.

I know that the training of the men at Fr. Irwin is very important and I am not hear to slam the men and women of the military, but as a tortoise owner it just sucks to hear that tortoises have to suffer and suffer unnecessarily. I hope a well thought out, sensible and sustainable solution can be found so these delightful shelled wonders can live in peace and work their way back from being endangered.

Whatever happened to the Hunter Ligget Reservation up by For Ord. I think it would be better for all concerned if the Army moved. With "smart bombs" now the vogue the army needs less than 100 square feet of land to practice their bombing.

Not only is the Army taking more land for training, the Marine Corps is as well by the end of 2010 in the Johnson Valley area. Remember, Army is part of the government.

"...the tortoises will be there long after we're gone." No, they won't. It's a nice thought, but without real human population control, they're doomed.

Dumb, dumb and dumber... relocating turtles. Even with the slightest of handling and a light touch, human contact with these little guys causes them enough stress that they actually pee, losing all the water they've retained/stored to get them through the hot and dry months in the desert. These guys end up dying from dehydration ~ there’s no rocket science here! It’s plain and simple, nothing short of the obvious ~ thanks government!! Oh yea, keep pointing the finger at the OHV crowd too, our governments excuse for their demise. Saying we use these cute little guys as jumps on our bikes ~ give me a break. Just excuses to shut down our recreation areas! The primary reason people ride desert trail systems is to see and enjoy the all the beautiful features, including wildlife, which makes up our incredible desert recreation areas. You guys relocating these poor fellows lead them straight to their demise. The tortoises are where they are for a reason, don't try to mitigate with failing solutions. Leave our public desert recreation lands and trail systems ALONE and quit figure pointing others as excuses to make up for government failures. It’s a big desert out there. Find a remote and far away area to use for government test sites, touch and goes and drills. How much more land do we need to give away to our government?? What about preserving the people rights to enjoy the very land our government serves to protect. Mark my words ~ wake up people, it’s just a matter of time before we can kiss it all bye-bye. Don’t hand over more of our public lands to our government. They have plenty of other places they can use. This area was selected because it was economically convenient. But, in the real picture, the cost is to us. We lose not only our recreation lands, we’re killing its wildlife in the process. Protect your land and your rights!

It's a heartbreak. I love these little guys. I have a sulcata myself.

When I was growing up near Philadelphia, there were box turtles in the woods. They were very big. My dad said they were very old. As kids we used to play with them a little. One day, I went to the woods and there was a turtle someone had killed...smashed his body...on purpose. I wondered who would do a thing like that...I hoped it was no one that I knew and perhaps trusted. It was such a shock, as a child, to view such carnage and cruelty.

I wear a sea turtle on a chain around my neck. He's been hanging there for 20 years.

I wish the army would go elsewhere to train.

Only a fifteen day comment period? This makes it seem like the "fix" is in, the federal officials have already made up their minds, and there is little point in submitting comments. Despite "the change we can believe in", it appears that Army tank training continues to take precedence over threatened tortoises. It also sounds like past experience has shown that there is a high probability of high tortoise mortality from these translocations. I am reminded of the definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. The Mojave desert is still subject to drought, expansion of invasive plants that cause devastating habitat loss through repeated fires, and the prospect of excessive raven and coyote predation on tortoises. Until we find a way to effectively reduce these overall, underlying threats to tortoises, and thereby begin to reverse the decline in their populations, these translocations should not occur.

Seems to me that theres a huge lack of compation for these poor creatures on the military side of the argument. Some one sitting at there desk high up in a building some where thinking, "Who cares about a couple of turdles". Its not right and if all problems where aprouched with such callis this would be a awfull country to live in. Thank god for the people that stand up for the right of those creatures that can't stand up for them selfs. Just the fact that there indangered I would think would be reason enough to not move them. What does it take classify a wild life reserve or somthing along those lines.

The reason the Army can not look for some other training ground it that there is no other place in the United States that could fill in for Ft. Irwin. The very reason for its selection was its massive size, freedom from signal clutter, and its distance from major population centers.

Who said anything about bombing--- much of the use on the NTC involves simply driving...It's pathetic when you have all the whining about "the army should go bomb something else" while more than likely your house is parked on what was once habitat for some poor species that had to move someplace else---or die. Pretty easy just to sit there slurping tofu, punching your keyboard and taking full advantage of an economy built on cheap energy, protected by a top notch military. Try to name another country whose Army would even CONSIDER habitat and species preservation on their training ranges. You're all right, maybe the Army should move its training range...into YOUR neighborhood. If you won't get off your widening postierior to either help tortise restoration and preservation or help the Army with this problem ---then YOU are the problem.

"The animals were here long before the interloping humans and they'll be here long after we're gone, but I say that the BLM should closely monitor the transition so that the tortoises are kept alive and well for ALL to enjoy."

That's what they said about the Florida Panther, but thanks to humans there is no longer a true Florida Panther but rather a mix of panther and bobcat, and even then they are more bobcat than actual panther.

Why can't the Army look for some other training ground and just transport the trainees to it?

I sat for a talk by one of the state biologists on the subject of one of the other programs to relocate these animals. You would think there would be some common sense as to the results from this, but there just seems to be a reluctance on both sides to simply do the numbers.
Animals killed are dead no matter if its during relocation or from the resulting practice and mobilization.
Since there are several options, including navy controlled lands they could use, as well as less densly populated areas that was mentioned, better ideas need to be offered up before either the army or the conservationalists compromise.
I have friends that participated in excercises in the area and they really need the practice of moving heavy armor before they have to do it for real.
I also own and love my two liceinced desert tortoises.
I say talk smarter and talk more before acting.

Once again Fort Irwin shows its total disregard for its requirements under the Endangered Species Act. In 1994 it took the threat of arrest of the commander of the base to get their attention on the protection of another endangered species on the base. Its really unfortunate that the last 8 years of the Bush abomination gave the military this attitude of they being above the law. At least now with an adult in the White House there is a chance the BA for this biological mistake will be written and interpreted honestly and the Army will be told to find other alternatives.

are they hoping we all just forgot that they killed about half of the tortoises they moved last time? are they hoping we will somehow think waging more wars for oil is more important than preserving our natural ecosystems?

keep in mind that well over a million acres of this same desert is also under death threat for industrial solar and wind power plants (while none of us can get AB 811 loans to put solar panels on our roofs) and many if not most of the areas they want to dynamite, bulldoze, pave and industrialize out there are also good tortoise habitat (see Ivanpah, Chevron and BP's little project with Robert Kennedy, Jr., which will be a desert tortoise bloodbath).

ilene anderson knows what she is talking about - desert tortoise, like many other living beings, have a homing instinct. that should RULE OUT all tortoise relocations, period. mitigation and relocation are complete greenwashes. go do your stupid, destructive profiteering and killing-practice somewhere else. if you can't find a spot that won't slaughter a bunch of innocent species, then it's time to change your plans, not ruin yet another place.

Some folks would be surpised to know that there are tortoises on Ft. Irwin that have been there since General Patton trained his troops for the invasion of North Africa in 1942.

You did not post the url for making a comment to the BLM. Could you please post this link so readers can make a comment to the BLM, rather than the LA Times?


According to
the public comments closed in March 2009.
Why is more money going to be spent to blow more things up?

I have a brother who was posted out there, and they were very concerned about the tortoises. They can't just go somewhere else, Ft. Irwin IS the somewhere else. It wasn't pretty enough to be a National Park, and didn't have interesting name like "death valley". The army needs a place to train, and if they can relocate the tortoises they won't be endangering them.

Slow and Steady gets the shaft

don't we already have a desert to bomb?

...I do not think the army should move these creatures they should do without whatever they need this extra space for -- it may be wanted but we cant have it all....the army needs to preserve this area for the tortoises....please!

I lived 5 years in this part of the Mojave. We learned that just handling a desert tortoise can kill them, as the stress causes them to expel their liquids, resulting in rapid dehydration in a land where the soil temperature can be well over 100 degrees and the air so dry it sucks you dry in minutes. There are many military reserves in this region. It seems crazy that these army people feel they need THIS little piece of desert. I hope more people will find a way to oppose this.

The Army should train elsewhere and leave the turtles where they have been for thousands of years

Coming from the 29 Palms area, the tortoises should be left alone, they have a right to be there. It would take years for them to be able to relocate none the less adapt to a new area. It's not like they are humans who can live in different places.

this is nuts.....i thought this issue had been adressed already ...not only is this a protected species it is the state reptile....there has been documented mortality due to heavy equipment(tanks etc.)crushing their burrows......they hibernate in their burrows for a good part of the year and will virtually always return to their original the respiratory disease issue is no joke....if one infected individual is introduced to an uninfected colony(FOR INSTANCE THROUGH RELOCATION-)even inadvertantly it can easily WIPE OUT THE ENTIRE COLONY!!!!!!!!!!! Ye s these creatures are long lived but it takes a long time for them to reach sexual maturity and reproduce......A "kid gloves" approach would be way more appropriate in this case than "forced relocation" in my opiinion...By the way we have successfully raised and bred tortoises in captivity since the early 1970s.....Trent Smith

We are told that our army is "shrinking." WHY do we have to ENDANGER already ENDANGERED species? These creatures have inhabited this earth (in their space) since before the WHITE MAN arrived. WHATEVER the Army needs to do --FIND ANOTHER BASE (one of the MANY scheduled to CLOSE) to do WHATEVER the Army needs to do --THERE.

NO GOOD will come for these tortoises. LEAVE THEM BE. If God wanted these creatures in the MOJAVE -- he would have PUT THEM THERE!

Let the Army do "whatever" IN THE MOJAVE.

These creatures were there before the base, and we need the tortoises more than we need more bombs. This effort is doomed to failure, just on the face of it. Does nobody have any common sense anymore? Or is it always going to be one cover-your-butt rationalization after another from these deceitful sneaks?

There's a lot of desert out there - I'm sure the army can find another place to bomb without disturbing these tortoises.

Just combine Ft. Irwin and Twentynine Palms training facilities. To say that "bottom ranking twenty something's" would do something so callous just shows your absolute ignorance and disregard for military discipline. these highly trained soldiers are told that the tortoises have the right of way on the base.

My husband was stationed at Ft. Irwin and heard the warnings that if they should happen to come across the tortoises, they had to stop and wait for the animals to cross the road before proceeding. It was a punishable offense to touch the tortoise and move them so that the training may proceed quickly.

The animals were here long before the interloping humans and they'll be here long after we're gone, but I say that the BLM should closely monitor the transition so that the tortoises are kept alive and well for ALL to enjoy.

So what is the Army going to do? Have some bottom ranking twenty-something’s just drive through the desert and toss these turtles into a five ton Oshkosh and then drive them 30 or 40 miles away and dump them to fend for themselves? Relocation takes time and if the project is slated to start in 2012, one would expect such a relocation with proper habitat management to take three to five years. Why don't they just find someplace else to bomb and train?


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