Ask the RGJ : Is BLM euthanizing desert tortoises ?
Is the BLM euthanizing desert tortoises?
• Short answer: No, but hundreds of desert tortoises were killed a few years ago by U.S. Fish and Wildlife when a southern Nevada tortoise facility funded by the Bureau of Land Management was closed. Since then, it does not appear tortoises have been killed.
James Pierce messaged the RGJ via Facebook: “Is there any truth to the posts I’ve been seeing about BLM planning on euthanizing a bunch of desert tortoises because of funds drying up?”
Coincidentally, the RGJ published an opinion column May 6 by Terry Sullivan of Washoe Valley that said, “The BLM is now euthanizing tortoises because there are too many.”
The tortoise-euthanasia claims stem from the 2013 closure of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center outside Las Vegas.
The desert tortoise was declared an endangered species in 1989. The conservation center opened in the 1990s as a place where developers could bring desert tortoises who otherwise would have been bulldozed to death to make way for new homes being built in Clark County.
By 2012, people were giving former pet and stray tortoises to the center at a rate of 1,000 a year. This was way more than its budget and research mission could accommodate.
The Associated Press reported in 2013, “The Bureau of Land Management has paid for the holding and research facility with fees imposed on developers who disturb tortoise habitat on public land. As the housing boom swept through southern Nevada in the 2000s, the tortoise budget swelled. But when the recession hit, the housing market contracted, and the bureau and its local government partners began struggling to meet the center’s $1 million annual budget.”
As Pierce said in his Facebook post, funds did dry up. Those funds were handled by the BLM. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service actually ran the desert tortoise facility.
Fish and Wildlife Service scientists were faced with what to do with the 1,400 tortoises in the center’s care at the time. They decided to release the healthy ones into the wild and kill the sick ones, which numbered more than 700.
Subsequent rumors caused the Fish and Wildlife Service to put out a statement, “We want the public to know that the FWS is not euthanizing healthy tortoises. …
“Many pet tortoises, unfortunately, are diseased or otherwise in poor health, and run the risk of spreading disease to wild tortoises. These tortoises cannot be relocated to the wild, or otherwise contribute to recovery of the desert tortoise population. Sometimes euthanasia of unhealthy pet tortoises is necessary, but only as last resort, and only after we evaluate other options. All healthy tortoises at the DTCC will be relocated to sites that will support the recovery of the species.”
It probably didn’t quell the rumor mill that the center had a history of killing tortoises. According to a 2013 Las Vegas Review-Journal story, “During the center’s first decade or so, thousands of tortoises were euthanized under a policy that called for the destruction of any animal showing signs of a deadly upper respiratory tract disease considered a threat to the species. It was later learned that tortoises could test positive for the disease but never develop it, either because they had been exposed and recovered or because they could carry it without ever showing symptoms or passing it on. That led to a change in the disease protocol that dramatically reduced the number killed.”
Over time, the center released more than 10,000 desert tortoises in the wild. Researchers found that pet tortoises survived at about the same rate as wild ones.
Rudy Evenson, deputy chief of communications for BLM-Nevada, said the BLM was not responsible for choosing to kill desert tortoises at the center. It was merely the conduit of developer funds.
Just to be clear, Evenson said the BLM did not euthanize desert tortoises then nor is it doing so now.
Kobbe Shaw said by email he is not aware of any desert tortoises being killed since the center’s closure.
He is executive director of Tortoise Group, a Southern Nevada nonprofit that “has been educating and advocating for the protection and well-being of the desert tortoise since 1982,” according to its website.
“I know that many — hundreds — of tortoises were translocated throughout the Mojave under various sub-contracted research projects, and we at Tortoise Group received several tortoises that we have since adopted to the general public,” he said. “I’m not aware of any euthanized tortoises [since the center closed]. I’ve seen a few blogs and one article from somewhere in Clark County that allege tortoises being killed, but I’m pretty sure this didn’t happen – simply from personally dealing with the parties involved.”