April 4, 2008

Army Training Forces Mojave Tortoises to Relocate

Conservationists are upset over the moving of the desert tortoise, the Mojave Desert's flagship species, to make room for tank training at the Army's Fort Irwin.

The project involves transferring 770 endangered reptiles from Army land to a dozen public plots overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in what is being called the largest desert tortoise move in California history.

The army needs an extra 131,000 acres to accommodate faster tanks and longer-range weapons used each month to train some 4,000 troops. The move means expanding Fort Irwin, the already 643,000-acre training site, into tortoise territory.

And conservationists aren't happy about it.

Two conservation groups served Fort Irwin with a 60-day notice of intent to sue and plan to file the lawsuit after the desert tortoises have been moved.

The land set aside for the desert tortoises is too close to an interstate highway and is plagued with off-road vehicles and illegal dumping that would disturb the animals, according to the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors.

"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done to make the relocation site more habitable ... so the animals would survive better there," said Ileene Anderson, a staff biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to Fort Irwin spokesman John Wagstaffe, the translocation of tortoises is a very complex process and they must be moved gently to make sure they don't get stressed during the move.

However, lawyers for Fort Irwin and federal wildlife officials say the conservation group's claims are unfounded and decided to go ahead with the $8.5 million project. The process will last two weeks and the tortoises, including about 67 babies, are being moved into habitats approved by the U.S. Geological Survey and other experts.

A year before the transfer, biologists tagged the desert tortoises living in the expansion area with radio transmitters and took blood tests to assure their health.

The tortoises have recently awoken from winter hibernation and will return to their burrows in the summer and scientists have a short window of time to relocate them safely.

Scientists used receivers last weekend to scan the desert for signs of the tagged tortoises and placed them in plastic containers to relocate them to their new homes. They were then given water and released.

The relocated tortoises will be continually monitored for signs of stress.

Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno, Nev., said research studies show relocated tortoises typically roam for the first year and then eventually settle down and survive as well as tortoises that stayed put.

"We're plopping them down in a new area that they're not familiar with so they spend the first year or so learning their surroundings and where the good burrow sites are," said Averill-Murray.

Averill-Murray is not involved in the actual move, but helped plan the Fort Irwin project.

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is a species of tortoise native to the Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.


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Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors