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Desert tortoise
Press-Enterprise, September 11, 2009

Army to move forward with tortoise relocation
By David Danelski

The U.S. Army has told the U.S. Bureau of Land Management it plans to move 90 imperiled tortoises from Fort Irwin next month, despite the bureau's position that it will not participate in the effort because of uncertainty over how many of the reptiles will survive.

John Wagstaffe, a Fort Irwin spokesman, said the Army will relocate the desert tortoises after it gets an OK from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Army wants the tortoises cleared from 24,000 acres to make way for expanded training with tanks and other military vehicles.

Desert tortoises are threatened with extinction, and questions remain about whether moving them makes them more vulnerable to coyote attacks.

The Army suspended a tortoise relocation effort from the same area last fall after about 90 of 556 tortoises moved in spring 2008 died, most of them killed by coyotes.

The BLM participated in the previous relocation, because many of the animals were moved to public land managed by the agency.

One environmental group vowed Friday to take legal action, if necessary, to make sure tortoises are not moved this fall.

The Army is awaiting a determination from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether the military can go ahead with is plan to move the reptiles to Army-owned land south of Fort Irwin.

Ray Bransfield, a Ventura-based biologist with the wildlife agency, said Friday that he will consult with wildlife scientists from the BLM and the U.S. Geological Survey who are familiar with tortoise relocations before making a decision by the beginning of October.

A BLM biologist who had been meeting with the Army about the relocation plan said Friday that his agency has decided not to proceed because of uncertainty about the tortoises' safety.

"They have apparently decided they can move the tortoises on their own," said Chris Otahal, who is based in Barstow. "We (the BLM) are not involved. This is strictly an Army action."

Earlier in the summer, the BLM announced plans to move tortoises this fall and next spring from Fort Irwin expansion areas to public land between the training base and Interstate 15.

At the same time, the agency issued an environmental analysis that relied on research by a USGS ecologist that found coyotes were killing and eating tortoises in greater numbers throughout the California and Nevada deserts, most likely because of a prey shortage brought on by years of drought.

The ecologist's work supported the government's conclusion that deaths among the tortoises from Fort Irwin were unrelated to the relocations.

But the ecologist, Henderson, Nev.-based Todd Esque, asked the BLM last month not to use his research until he was able to further analyze his observations, Otahal said.

The BLM decided last week to re-do its environmental analysis, Otahal said. The new work isn't expected to be ready until late October or early November. The tortoises begin hibernating underground in November.

Otahal said he met Tuesday with Army officials, who told him they still plan to move the 89 tortoises from the 24,000-acre training area starting Oct. 1. By moving the reptiles to Army-owned land, the military will not need the BLM's cooperation or approval.

Army officials told Otahal they can move forward under the authority of an earlier environmental analysis of the overall plan to relocate tortoises from areas where Fort Irwin was expanding.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said her organization will try to the stop a fall relocation, even if it means going to court.

"The Army appears willing to sacrifice another 89 tortoises, using the old translocation plan that has shown itself to be fatally flawed," said Anderson, who is bases in Los Angeles.

She said she's also concerned about moving the animals in the fall, because little food is available for them at a time when they would need energy to find or dig new burrows.

Earlier this year, Anderson disputed government claims that relocated tortoises are no more vulnerable to coyotes than any other tortoises. She said the relocated tortoises were easy targets for coyotes.

Tortoises have natural homing instincts, and many tried to head back to the military property after they were moved, Anderson said.

Roy C. Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Friday that Esque and other researchers have found that resident tortoises near Fort Irwin were just as likely to be eaten by coyotes as relocated tortoises.

Regardless of what the Army does next month, the BLM will prepare an environmental analysis on the military's next step: moving 1,100 tortoises from a 70,000-acre expansion area on the west side of the base.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton