By JENNIFER BOWLES
Paul Alvarez/The Press-Enterprise
Biologist Colin Spake weighs a tortoise before placing it in its new home. Over the next two weeks, 770 of the reptiles will be moved.
The helicopter sweeping above the desert scrub Friday northeast of Barstow carried rare and precious cargo in the aluminum boxes mounted above both skids.
The specially built boxes held 11 desert tortoises, each contained in a plastic sweater box secured with duct tape and punched with holes so the creatures could breathe. The reptiles, threatened with extinction, were among hundreds being relocated from land where the Army wants to train soldiers with tanks and weaponry of war.
"It's better they take a nine-minute helicopter ride than a bumpy two-hour truck trip" on dirt roads, said Bill Boarman, a scientist contracted by the Army to oversee the relocation.
The tortoises -- protected by one of the nation's most powerful environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act -- moved Friday were airlifted to an area west of the Calico Mountains and five miles north of Interstate 15. The Army's two-week operation will relocate nearly 770 of the reptiles from the southern border of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, where troops from across the country battle a home team posing as the enemy.
The $8.5 million move, the culmination of a 20-year battle that pitted environmentalists against the military, went ahead despite two environmental groups' recent threat to sue.
"We are at war, and we need to train the solider so they are prepared," said Muhammad Bari, environmental divisions chief at Fort Irwin.
The Army is expanding its training grounds by 131,000 acres to accommodate faster-moving tanks and longer-range weaponry. Some of that land, which had been under U.S. Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction, is considered critical for the tortoises to survive.
The Army had its eye on a far bigger chunk of land in the past. In 1997, the Army wanted 331,217 acres, and earlier proposals were even larger, said Elden Hughes, a longtime Sierra Club member who lives in Joshua Tree.
Hughes, 76, said both sides compromised over the years. But still, he fears some of the tortoises will die after the move.
"Your soul cries. And the desert will be the poorer for it," he said. "Do it the best you can, but you realize you're losing things."
Hughes said the large burrows that the lumbering reptiles dig create homes for a slew of wildlife, including burrowing owls, coyotes and lizards.
"It creates most of the terrestrial homes in the desert; all life suffers if we lose the tortoise."
In the largest field experiment of its type, government and private scientists will study how the tortoises adapt to their new habitat over the next four years.
Scientists will check on their health, whether respiratory and shell diseases show up in larger numbers, whether they stay within their new habitat, and whether their reproduction is affected by the move, said Kristin Berry, a wildlife biologist and tortoise expert with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Fort Irwin's Bari said that, if the tortoises fare poorly in their new habitat, the Army will consult the scientists to see if anything should be done.
Work on the relocation project started 18 months ago when biologists began tracking tortoises in the area Fort Irwin had claimed.
The scientists attached transmitters to the tortoises' shells, assessed the animals' health and conducted blood tests. Reptiles that tested positive for a contagious respiratory disease were left in their habitat and will be tested again later, Berry said. They could be put in pens at Fort Irwin away from healthy tortoises and the tanks, but if they are in bad shape, they may be euthanized and necropsied, she said.
On Friday, a crew of 25 from an Army contractor moved 37 tortoises. Crew members armed with radios had scoured the land in the Fort Irwin expansion area Thursday to locate the tortoises, then gave them water, examined them and loaded them into boxes to await Friday's flights.
At the new location, each tortoise was placed in a burrow, some manmade, or under the shade of a creosote bush.
Colin Spake, one of the biologists, donned gloves to take female tortoise No. 2552 from her box and hoist her with string to weigh her -- just over 5 pounds -- with a spring scale. After recording the location and other details, he placed her into the burrow. Later, she could be seen peering out.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors have filed an official notice of intent to sue, alleging the relocation area is plagued by illegal dumping and off-roading, mines, lower-quality habitat, and tortoises with diseases that could spread to the new arrivals.
The decline of the reptiles, which have lived in the Mojave Desert for hundreds of thousands of years, has been blamed on disease, predation by ravens, habitat loss and off-roading, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They are found in widely scattered areas of the Mojave in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.
Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said the groups still plan to file suit.
"We want the relocation area to be much better protected then it currently is," she said.
"It's an onerous, gigantic experiment to begin with," Anderson said, noting that research has found that 20 percent of relocated tortoises die or can never be found again. "So that's a big hit. Compounding that with disease problems just seems like it dilutes the effectiveness of the translocation."
On Friday, biologists said time will tell.
Berry glanced at the ground, noticing desert dandelions and other annual flowers the tortoise eat.
"There were tortoises here already," she said. "One of the questions we'll find out is how many will stay and who will leave."
Video: Scientists relocate tortoises from the area around Fort Irwin in Barstow