July 2, 2008

Lawsuit Filed to Stop Desert Tortoise Relocation

Press Release
Center for Biological Diversity

LOS ANGELES — The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors today filed suit in federal court against two government agencies over the relocation of hundreds of desert tortoises and transfer of land-management authority from the Army to the Bureau of Land Management without required environmental review.

“It’s time to overhaul Fort Irwin’s disastrous tortoise relocation program,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Though we can’t stop the Fort’s expansion, we can ensure that the relocation of these rare animals is done right. With the severity of the impacts to tortoises from the expansion, it‘s imperative that the Army’s mitigation be as successful as possible.”

Despite the potential to drive the tortoise closer to extinction, in 2001 Congress authorized Fort Irwin to expand into some of the best desert tortoise habitat remaining in the western Mojave desert. As partial mitigation, in March the Army moved more than 770 tortoises from one expansion area onto lands acquired by the Army and now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The new lands, however, provide much lower-quality habitat and contain pockets of diseased tortoises.

Desert tortoise relocation has never been attempted on such a large scale, and this spring’s relocated tortoises suffered devastating initial mortality from predators: within days more than 20 tortoises had been killed by coyotes. Healthy tortoises were also moved into areas where diseased tortoises live, which is in direct conflict with the recommendation of epidemiologists. The lands into which the tortoises were moved are far poorer habitat because of numerous roads, illegal off-road vehicle routes, houses, illegal dumping, and mines. (This is why the area currently supports low numbers of existing desert tortoise, some of which are diseased.) Subsequent phases of the relocation effort will involve over 1,000 tortoises, although the relocation sites have yet to be identified.

“Moving healthy tortoises into low-quality habitat that contains diseased tortoises is a recipe for disaster,” said Anderson. “And protection from predators is essential based on the last relocation’s tragedy.”

Having survived over 1 million years in California’s deserts, desert tortoise numbers are now crashing. The crash is due to numerous factors including disease, habitat degradation, crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, and predation by animals. Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise, which is California’s official state reptile, is now protected under both federal and state endangered species acts.

Recently, population genetics studies have identified the desert tortoise in the west Mojave desert, including those at Fort Irwin, as distinctly different from its relatives to the north, east, and south. This finding sheds new light on why increased conservation and relocation success are more important than ever for the Fort Irwin relocation.

“The relocation plan could be much improved by reducing the number of tortoises being moved, making sure only healthy tortoises are moved into healthy populations, and improving the habitat quality in the relocation area by making it a tortoise preserve,” suggested Anderson, “where there are a minimal number of roads, no off-road vehicles, dumping, or mining allowed, coupled with strict enforcement.”