DESERT TORTOISE: Marines to move hundreds from training area

DESERT TORTOISE: Marines to move hundreds from training area

More than 1,400 of the imperiled desert reptiles will be moved from 29 Palms base expansion area


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Military officials are planning to move an estimated 1,429 desert tortoises from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps training expansion area that may be largest relocation of the imperiled species in state history.

The plan is to move the reptiles from 88,000 acres in the Johnson Valley, northwest of Landers. In 2013, Congress approved adding the area to an expanded Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

The relocation still needs final approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Brian Croft, a wildlife biologist for the agency.

But the move is needed to keep the animals out of the harm’s way during military training exercises with tanks and live ammunition that are scheduled to begin in August.

Military officials want to start moving the reptiles while the weather is still cool to reduce stress on the tortoises.

“We are shooting to start this as soon as possible,” said Walter J. Christensen, head of training center’s conservation branch, during a telephone interview, on Thursday, March 3.

The operation is expected to take two to four weeks. The military will use a hundred or more contract biologists to handle the tortoises.

Most of the animals will be moved with helicopters from the Johnson Valley to federal land southeast of Barstow known as the Ord-Rodman critical habitat area, Croft said.

Military officials expect to move 900 adults and 285 juvenile tortoises to protected habitat area. Another 235 younger tortoises will be taken to special base facilities, where they will be cared for until they are old enough for release.

Desert tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction.

In recent years, the animal has lost habitat in the western Mojave desert because of the expansion of the Army’s Fort Irwin and the development of large-scale solar energy plants.

“The loss of the habitat is ongoing, particularly in the western Mojave,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biologic Diversity. “There is a precipitous decline, and they are spiraling toward extinction.”

Studies have shown that about half of relocated tortoises don’t survive the first three years after being moved, she said.

Relocated tortoises are more likely to be eaten by coyotes because they haven’t dug or found underground burrows that protect them from predators and the elements, Anderson said. They also find themselves in territorial battles with other tortoises already living in the transplant areas, and these conflicts make the tortoises more vulnerable to predators.

The military will take several steps to minimize tortoise deaths, said Christensen and Marine Corps. Lt. Col. Timothy B. Pochop, director of natural resources and environmental affairs at the training center.

Use of helicopters will allow for shorter and less stressful travel times, they said. The animals will be placed in areas away from coyotes. And individuals from the same social groups will be placed near each other.

Pochop and Christensen said the Marines are committed to studying relocated tortoises for 30 years. To do this, a sampling of the animals will be fitted with GPS tracking devices.

This research is geared at providing information needed help to species recover, they said.

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