March 18, 2008

Environmentalists intend to sue over Fort Irwin tortoise-relocation plan

The Press-Enterprise

Environmental groups on Monday put three federal agencies on notice that they intend to sue over a plan to move nearly 800 desert tortoises from land where the Army is expanding its tank-training center near Barstow.

The notice from the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors comes just two weeks before the Army was planning to move the reptiles, which are threatened with extinction, from the southern expansion edge of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin and onto public lands closer to Interstate 15.

It is the latest salvo in what became known as tanks vs. tortoise -- a more than 20-year effort by the military to expand the training center to accommodate faster-moving tanks. Troops come to Fort Irwin from across the country to train against a home team that acts as the enemy.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the groups are not against the so-called tortoise translocation since Congress approved the center's expansion. But, she said, the new land is lower-quality habitat, and has pockets of diseased tortoises, mines, and illegal dumping and off-roading.

"If it's a place where the tortoises are going to survive, we'd like it managed more like a tortoise preserve," Anderson said.

John Wagstaffe, a Fort Irwin spokesman, said Army officials have not yet received the 60-day notice of intent to sue and he could not comment on it.

As it stands, he said, 770 tortoises will be moved at the end of the month over a two-week period onto 13 one-square-mile plots. Those plots were chosen by scientists and other experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Redlands, he said.

Wagstaffe said the Army paid $900,000 to install fencing along Fort Irwin Road and Interstate 15 to prevent the reptiles from getting killed by vehicles. In addition, underpasses below the road were constructed to the tortoises could migrate to other areas.

Anderson said she hoped the Army would avoid a lawsuit by improving the relocation plan.

The notice was also sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees some of the translocation lands, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.