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Desert tortoise
Press-Enterprise, March 9, 2016

CALIFORNIA DESERT: Tortoise relocations challenged



An environmental group filed a legal challenge Tuesday, March 8, to the military’s plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises out of an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue, contending that federal agencies have failed to fully examine how the move might harm the Mojave Desert tortoises as required under the Endangered Species Act. Such a notice is required before a lawsuit may be filed in federal court.

Tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction, but the Marines say they have to move them from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley to protect the reptiles from live ammunition training exercises planned for this summer.

The center argues that studies have shown that half of the tortoises will perish within three years of being moved in part because they haven’t found or dug underground burrows that give them shelter and protection from coyotes and other predators.

Military officials could not be reached Tuesday, but last week Walter J. Christensen, head of the training center’s conservation branch, and Marine Corps Lt. Col. Timothy B. Pochop, director of natural resources and environmental affairs at the training center, said the Marines are taking great care and expect most of the animals to survive.

Using helicopters will reduced stress from travel, and military officials are choosing release sites that are less likely to be prowled by coyotes, they said. And individuals from the same social groups will be placed near one another.

Most of the animals will be moved to federal land southeast of Barstow known as theOrd-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, which is overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said the group has seen no evidence that the military has analyzed impacts to tortoises and other wildlife already living in the critical habitat area, which has a limited amount of food, water and other resources.

Such an analysis is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, she said.

“This massive translocation proposal is being rushed through the process this spring without fully considering how it may affect the already declining tortoise population in the western Mojave,” said Anderson. “What we should be doing is recovering this population, not pushing it closer to extinction.”

The move has not yet been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which still needs to sign off on the relocation plan and an analysis that showed that the move would not jeopardize the survival of the species, said Brian Croft, a biologist with the wildlife service.

Military officials want to start moving the tortoises as early as this month while the weather is still cool. The relocation is expected to take a team of about 100 biologists as long as two to four weeks to complete.

Croft said such a move should be done by mid-May – before it gets too hot for the reptiles to be above ground. The tortoises survive the desert’s harsh climate by spending the hottest and coldest months in their subterranean burrows.

The planned move stems from a 2013 decision by Congress to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center to enhance live ammunition training operations deemed necessary for national security.


Copyright 2016 The Press-Enterprise.

This article originally appeared here.

Jeffrey pine photo by John Villinski.