July 6, 2008

Suit attacks relocation effort

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Two environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against the Army and the Bureau of Land Management alleging that proper environmental studies were not conducted before nearly 800 desert tortoises were relocated for Fort Irwin's expansion.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors, which filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, allege the federally endangered tortoises were moved to inferior habitat that included numerous roads and pockets of diseased tortoises. They also allege that illegal off-roading and dumping occurs at the site east of the Calico Mountains and south of Coyote Lake.

"It's time to overhaul Fort Irwin's disastrous tortoise relocation program," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, in a news release. "Though we can't stop the fort's expansion, we can ensure that the relocation of these rare animals is done right."

The National Training Center and Fort Irwin initiated the tortoise relocation efforts in order to expand its borders to train soldiers being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress authorized the expansion in 2001, and the Army has spent more than $8.5 million on research and relocation of the tortoises.

Twenty-three tortoises were killed by coyotes in the month following their relocation, and 11 other tortoises native to the area also were killed by predators

Army spokesman John Wagstaffe said every effort has been made to make the relocation of the tortoises as successful as possible. He said two of the world's leading biologists in tortoise studies, Kristin Berry and Bill Borman, have been assisting in the relocation efforts.

But Anderson said in her news release that relocating healthy tortoises to a habitat occupied by diseased tortoises was a "recipe for disaster."

She said the relocation plan could be 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.

Despite tortoise mortality, Wagstaffe believes the Army did its share of due diligence in the relocation process.

"We do feel, as we have felt all along, that we've done a very good job," Wagstaffe said.

Whenever diseased tortoises were located on plots during the relocation, they were removed and put in a pen at Fort Irwin for monitoring, he said.

"I'm not saying we found every diseased tortoise, but we hope that, in our survey of these plots, that we found all the diseased tortoises and removed them," Wagstaffe said. "I'm very proud of what we've done in this particular case. Nobody's perfect, but I think we've made every effort to make this translocation as successful as any translocation in the history of Southern California."