April 4, 2008

800 tortoises moved out of Fort Irwin's way

Lauren McSherry, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

NEWBERRY SPRINGS - The helicopter carrying unusual cargo circled once before setting down Friday on a rocky patch of desert just east of the Calico Mountains and south of Coyote Lake.

It was loaded with desert tortoises - 11 of them - that had been tenderly placed in individual, clear Sterilite boxes secured in aircraft-grade aluminum bins attached to each side of the helicopter.

The landing complete, researchers ran to the helicopter to retrieve the reptiles.

The drop-off was the fourth of the day at one of 13 sites being used for the relocation of nearly 800 desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert.

The effort to remove the tortoises from harm's way was initiated by the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, which is expanding its borders in order to train soldiers being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But by pushing its borders west and south, Fort Irwin is encroaching on areas occupied by the desert tortoise, which is federally listed as a threatened species.

The Army has spent more than $8.5 million on research and relocation of the tortoises, said Muhammad Bari, environmental division chief at Fort Irwin.

The effort began March 27, and is expected to take about two more weeks, said Kristin Berry, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist based in Riverside. It is being carried out by several federal and state agencies and ITS Corp.

The helicopter is crucial to the effort because it makes for easy access to the remote and largely undeveloped 389-square-mile area south of Fort Irwin. It also spares the tortoises from a long, bumpy ride over dirt roads to the distant sites.

Before being flown in, the tortoises are weighed, measured and given a water bath to help re-hydrate them. They then are tested for upper respiratory tract disease, a deadly illness that has broken out in areas of the High Desert.

The relocation is not the largest ever attempted - more than 1,000 tortoises have been moved in other parts of the Southwest - but the scope of the project is groundbreaking.

No relocation has involved moving an entire intact population from one area to another, nor has there ever been such extensive long-term monitoring of tortoises and their habitat, said William Boarman, a project leader with Conservation Science Research & Consulting.

Berry is one of the experts involved in the monitoring. She hopes it will answer a number of questions, particularly about the respiratory disease and its causes.

She also wonders how the relocated tortoises will fare.

"How many are going to stay?" she asked. "Will any head for home? Do they have a homing capability?"

X-rays will be taken of female tortoises to see how moving them has affected reproduction, and DNA will be collected from hatchlings to see if there is any interbreeding between the original tortoise population and the newly added population, Berry said.

Transmitters resembling miniature car antennas are attached to the sides of the tortoises' shells so scientists can map their movements and retrieve them to study their health over the next five years.

The relocation has garnered some controversy. Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors announced plans to file a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army over the relocation project. The groups want the military to do a better job of protecting the animals by prohibiting off-road vehicles, stepping up enforcement against illegal dumping and limiting roads in the area.

On Friday, as the sun reached its zenith, one tortoise, released beneath the shade of a creosote bush, emerged to chomp on some tufts of green filaree.

Earlier in the day, Berry had stood surveying the desert and this year's extraordinary wildflower bloom, which guarantees plenty of food for the tortoises.

"This is a very good year for a release," she said.