Military personnel at Marine Air-Ground Task Force Twentynine Palms are gearing up to airlift 1,185 desert tortoises from the base training grounds to a desert sanctuary to further the tortoises’ chances of survival.
Congressional approval still looms over whether or not the Marine Corps will be allowed to expand the base by 165 square miles, much of it prime habitat for the desert tortoise, according to reports by the LA Times.
But not everyone is happy about the potential move of the tortoises.
“I wish the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would get some backbone and say it can’t permit another tortoise translocation by the military,” said Glenn Stewart, a biologist and member of the board of directors of the Desert Tortoise Council conservation group. “The situation makes us feel like we’ll have to write off California’s Mojave population.”
Other biologists don’t agree including William Boarman, a wildlife scientist and desert tortoise expert. He says, relocation “is not a conservation strategy or a means of helping tortoise populations grow. It is simply a way of moving them out of harm’s way.”
The tortoises have struggled to thrive in the Mojave Desert in the last decade, where the number of breeding adults has fallen approximately 50%, according to a federal biologist survey.
Similarly, there was a decline of adult tortoises from the 1970s to the 1990s. Scientists studied tortoise carcasses to discover causes of death: many were crushed by vehicles or livestock, some were killed by disease, but a large portion of tortoise had been shot, though scientists don’t stipulate if it was with training ammunition or random shotgun blasts by local civilians.
The biologist and head of the Marine Corps’ translocation effort, Brian Henen, is invested in this 30-year-plan for saving the tortoises, saying the program “demonstrates how much we care about this species.”
That cost is a $50 million effort — raising the tortoises for 3 years, tagging them with radio equipment to monitor their progress, and eventually transporting them to another part of the Mojave Desert.
Currently, there are pens on the base today where were the tortoises are being raised today so they are at a size where they can better protect themselves from predators.
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