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For Immediate Release, September 17, 2008

Contact: Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 654-5943 (office); (323) 490-0223 (mobile)

Public Land Seizure for Military Bombing Range
Threatens California Desert and Desert Tortoise

LOS ANGELES— The Bureau of Land Management has issued a Notice of Proposed Legislative Withdrawal to enable the eventual transfer of 365,906 acres of fragile public land in the Mojave Desert to the U.S. Marine Corps for bombing, tank training and other “live fire” exercises.

The lands identified by the Marine Corps for its Air Ground Combat Center training grounds near Twentynine Palms include habitat critical for survival of the threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and desert bighorn sheep. The Marine Corps says it needs the expansion for national security.

“National security doesn’t require seizing and bombing public lands and threatened species habitat,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The public needs more explanation on the need for the proposed expansion under which deserts and wildlife that are already in decline will fall victim to tank treads, heavy artillery and other destructive military activity.”

Today’s proposal is the latest in a string of threats to the tortoise. Having survived more than a million years in California’s deserts, desert tortoise numbers are now crashing, particularly in the West Mojave, where much of the expansion would occur. The population decline is due to numerous factors, including disease, habitat degradation, crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, and predators. Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise, California’s official state reptile, is now protected under both federal and state endangered species acts. The expansion could also lead to additional disastrous tortoise relocations. Nearly 2,000 tortoises are already being experimentally relocated for the expansion of Fort Irwin, an Army post about 25 miles north of the Marine Corps base. That effort so far has resulted in unexpectedly high tortoise mortality rates.

In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a new draft recovery plan that would weaken protections for the tortoise. The plan provides only vague descriptions of recovery actions – actions that are not derived from the best available science. Recently, population genetics studies have identified the desert tortoise in the western portion of the Mojave Desert as distinctly different from its relatives to the northern, eastern, and southern portions. This finding sheds new light on why increased conservation and relocation success are more important than ever for the Fort Irwin effort.

“The legacy of one million years of evolutionary history should not fall victim to our president’s failed war,” Anderson said. “Endangered species remain the Bush administration’s very lowest priority — and in its final days, the administration appears to have set its sights on speeding the desert tortoise towards extinction.”

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  


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