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