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For Immediate Release, March 17, 2008

Contact: Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 654-5943

Desert Tortoise Relocation Challenged:
Proposed “Mitigation” for Fort Irwin Expansion May Do More Harm Than Good

LOS ANGELES— Based on new science that documents health hazards of moving desert tortoises, the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors today filed notice of their intent to sue three government agencies over the relocation of hundreds of these charismatic and imperiled animals as “mitigation” for the impacts on tortoises from the expansion of the Fort Irwin army base.

“Fort Irwin’s expansion is always been a bad deal for tortoises. We can’t stop the expansion, but we can ensure that the relocation of these rare animals is done right”, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “With the severity of the impacts to tortoises from the Fort Irwin expansion, it is essential that the Army’s mitigation be as successful as possible.”

Despite the potential to drive the tortoise closer to extinction, in 2001 Congress authorized Fort Irwin to expand into some of the best desert tortoise habitat remaining in the western Mojave desert. As partial mitigation, the Army agreed to move a majority of the tortoises from the expansion area onto other public lands now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The new lands, however, provide much lower-quality habitat and have pockets of diseased tortoises.

Desert tortoise relocation has never been attempted on such a large scale, and even “successful” small-scale projects have had a more than 20-percent mortality rate. The current relocation plan will move healthy tortoises into areas where diseased tortoises live, which is against the recommendation of epidemiologists. And the lands into which the tortoises will be moved consist of far poorer habitat because of numerous roads, illegal off-road vehicle routes, houses, illegal dumping, and mines. This is why the area currently supports low numbers of existing desert tortoise, some of which are diseased.

“Moving healthy tortoises into low-quality habitat that contains diseased tortoises is a recipe for disaster,” said Anderson.

Having survived tens of thousands of years in California’s deserts , desert tortoise numbers have declined precipitously in recent years. The crash of populations is due to numerous factors including disease, crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, habitat degradation, and predation by dogs and ravens. Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise, which is California’s official state reptile, is now protected under both federal and California’s endangered species acts.

Recently, population genetics studies have identified that the desert tortoise in the west Mojave desert is distinctly different from its relatives to the north, east and south. This finding sheds new light on why increased conservation and relocation success is more important than ever at the Fort Irwin site.

“The relocation plan could be much improved by reducing the number of tortoises being moved, making sure only healthy tortoises are moved into healthy populations, and improving the habitat quality in the relocation area by making it a tortoise preserve,” suggested Anderson, “where there are a minimal number of roads, no off-road vehicles, dumping, or mining allowed, and strict enforcement.”

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