May 14, 2008

EDITORIAL: A tortoise tale

Desert critters and the Endangered Species Act

Las Vegas Review-Journal

Native Las Vegan Harry Pappas was appointed to the Bureau of Land Management Citizen Advisory Council by then-Rep. Barbara Vucanovich. He later represented the State Rifle & Pistol Association on the Clark County Tortoise Advisory Council.

"They said the (desert) tortoise was threatened, so they had to fence off these huge areas and shut out all the cattle, which means no one is out there shooting the coyotes and the raven or trapping the lions anymore, so of course that wrecked the hunting," Mr. Pappas recalled, back in 2001. "They said anyone who found a tortoise had to turn it in" to Clark County authorities.

"So what happened? They got so overrun with tortoises being turned in that they told us they were going to have to start euthanizing them. I said, 'Hold on a minute, here. Euthanize them? Why don't you just drop them out in the desert?' They said, 'Oh no, they'll fight with the native tortoises that already live out there and they'll kill each other, because all these lands are already at saturation levels.' I said, 'Wait a minute, now: Which is it? How can they be "threatened," or "endangered" ... but now you tell us all these lands are at "saturation levels" for tortoises?' "

Cattle weren't the problem, Mr. Pappas has always insisted. In fact, cattlemen formerly reduced the populations of predators including the coyote and the raven, which benefited tortoise populations.

"But now they say the way to protect the tortoise is to fence off the land and not let the ranchers and the hunters in, when the biggest tortoise populations we ever had were in the '50s and '60s, when you had plenty of ranching, and plenty of hunting, and plenty of predator control," Mr. Pappas insists.

Needless to say, it's hard to qualify as a federal bureaucrat if you're not willing to keep repeating the same mistakes. It was also back in 2001 that Congress authorized Fort Irwin -- a prime site for desert combat training near Barstow in Southern California's western Mojave desert -- to expand into prime tortoise habitat. As mitigation, the Army agreed to move the tortoises from the expansion area onto unoccupied public lands, an effort that finally began in March 2008.

But so far, at least 14 of the translocated adult tortoises and 14 resident tortoises in the area have been killed and eaten by coyotes, according to biologists monitoring survival rates of the reptiles, many of which were fitted with radio transmitters.

Fifteen of 70 baby tortoises collected at the training center as part of the relocation program have also died of various causes, Army officials tell the Los Angeles Times.

The problem, they say, might be linked to a severe drought that killed off plants and triggered a crash in rodent populations. As a result, coyotes that normally thrive on kangaroo rats and rabbits are turning to gopherus agassizii for sustenance.

In an effort to prevent further losses, the Army has requested that the predators, described by one military spokesman as a "rogue clan of coyotes," be eradicated by sharpshooters. The hunt, however, has been delayed by bureaucratic red tape.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, meantime announces it plans to file suit later this month against the Army, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly violating the federal Endangered Species Act in their big tortoise move.

William Boarman, an adjunct professor of biology at San Diego State University who's helping direct the translocation project, explains that after the Army decided to expand operations at Fort Irwin, "We were stuck with bad options: move the tortoises or leave them in place, which would have been much worse."

Said U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kristin Berry: "Coyotes didn't seem to be a problem when we started. The question in the back of all of our minds now is this: How could we have determined that this was going to happen?"

Oh, please.

As documented in Vernon Bostic's "Ecology of the Desert Tortoise in Relation to Cattle Grazing," the greatest death loss among Southern Nevada desert tortoises during the severe drought of 1981 occurred in the Crescent Valley Allotment, where cattle had been excluded from grazing.

"On the adjoining Christmas Tree Pass Allotment, which was grazed (by cattle) all year long, the tortoises were relatively unaffected by the severe drought. ... The reason is simple: Cows provide tortoises with both food and drink," wrote Mr. Bostic.

Cattle also help the tortoises by eating off the previous year's dried growth from grasses and other desert plants, clearing the way for new growth close enough to the ground to provide turtle fodder.

The solution? Move the Fort Irwin tortoises not onto parched habitat from which they will only start their long, lumbering walk home, but rather, onto well-maintained cattle grazing lands where local ranchers have improved the springs, putting in windmills, ponds and water tanks.