May 30, 2006

Fighting to save the desert tortoise

Population has declined 90 percent since 1980s

By TRACIE TROHA Staff Writer
Barstow Desert Dispatch

VICTORVILLE — Wildlife experts say the threatened desert tortoise has virtually disappeared from the High Desert, and efforts to save it are being hampered by constant construction and the spread of disease.

Once common and widespread, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the desert tortoise population has declined 90 percent since the 1980s, when it was first listed as a threatened species.

Randy Arnold, a biologist and head of the Hesperia consulting firm RCA and Associates, has been doing desert tortoise surveys for the last 20 years and says these days its rare to find one in the Victor Valley.

"Part of the reason is because development activity has resulted in a reduction of their habitat," Arnold said. "They also suffer from a respiratory infection. It is a fairly nasty disease that has hit the tortoise population pretty hard."

Arnold's company conducts biological surveys for a majority of the development projects in the High Desert and said the discovery of a tortoise does not stop the project. The tortoise is just relocated to land operated by the Bureau of Land Management.

While the move may be helpful to the tortoise, its habitat is being destroyed, said Michael Connor, executive director of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee.

"The desert is getting smaller and smaller everyday," Connor said. "Big cities are slowly spreading into the desert."

In an effort to save the desert tortoise, non-profit organizations like the Preserve Committee are working with government agencies to protect the tortoises' habitat.

Connor said the Preserve Committee is currently working with BLM to retire a grazing permit on a portion of the Blackwater Well Ranch in northwestern San Bernardino County in order to restore a critical habitat.

"Right now we are trying to reduce the grazing of domestic livestock in the desert," Connor said. "The tortoises can be trampled, their eggs get damaged and their burrows get damaged. Cows and sheep will eat anything green out there and compete with the tortoise."

By saving the habitat, Connor said, the organization is also saving other threatened species as well, including the Mojave ground squirrel and the burrowing owl.

Connor said educational programs are also an important part of saving the desert tortoise.

Members of the High Desert Chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club often visit schools and other groups to talk about the need to save the desert tortoise, according to member Judy Rogers.

The club, along with the Joshua Tree Turtle and Tortoise Rescue, also adopt tortoises to "caregiver" families.

Yet as long as construction work continues in the High Desert, the desert tortoise could eventually disappear, according to Rae Packard, director of the Joshua Tree Turtle and Tortoise Rescue.

"Environmental encroachment is the number one threat to the desert tortoise," Packard said. "And the respiratory disease really did a lot of damage to the healthy population that was left."

Connor said trying to save the tortoise habitat is a long and tedious process.

"We are not going to see an immediate impact. It's going to take 20 years or more," he said. "People should take after the tortoise. They are slow moving and patient. We should do the same. We have to be patient."