For Immediate Release, October 10, 2008
Contact: Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 490-0223 (cell)
Disastrous Desert Tortoise Translocation Suspended
LOS ANGELES— Fort Irwin officials on Thursday suspended their disastrous desert tortoise translocation program, in response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors. The flawed translocation project, undertaken to remove tortoises from an area where the fort intends to expand its training areas, has so far sustained huge losses. More than 90 relocated and resident tortoises have perished, primarily killed by predators, and more losses are expected due to healthy tortoises being introduced into diseased populations — against the recommendations of epidemiologists.
The first phase of the translocation was begun in March 2008, when about 770 tortoises were moved from Fort Irwin to areas south of the installation that already had desert tortoise populations. Almost immediately, coyotes began killing both relocated and resident desert tortoises.
“We predicted that the translocation of tortoises from Fort Irwin’s expansion would be disastrous, and unfortunately, we were proven right.” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The loss of so many tortoises is certainly not helping this threatened population. The Army must minimize the death rate. If relocation really is necessary, it needs to be done much more carefully.”
The translocation effort and other threats are pushing 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 into other public lands it had purchased south of the post. But the new lands provide much lower-quality habitat, and have pockets of diseased tortoises and coyotes that are starving from lack of prey due to drought. Desert tortoise translocation has never been attempted on such a large scale as the Fort Irwin project. Even “successful” small-scale projects have had a more than 20 percent mortality rate.
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 — California’s official state reptile — is now protected under both federal and California endangered species acts.
Population genetics studies recently have identified that the desert tortoise in the western Mojave desert, including the Fort Irwin tortoises, is distinctly different from its relatives to the north, east and south. This finding sheds new light on why increased conservation and translocation success is more important than ever for the Fort Irwin effort.
“This whole debacle needs to be significantly rethought,” Anderson said. “If translocation really needs to be done, the number of tortoises that will be moved should be reduced, and only healthy tortoises should be moved into healthy populations. Also, protection from predators is needed — and that should not include killing predators. And the relocation area should be made into a tortoise preserve, where there is a minimal number of roads, no off-road vehicles, no dumping, no mining, and strict enforcement of those restrictions.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 180,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.