February 7, 2009

Public input sought on relocating desert tortoises for military training center project

An analysis says coyotes caused most of the deaths of desert tortoises during a relocation effort. Frank Bellino / The Press-Enterprise

The Press-Enterprise

The federal government is asking for the public's help in deciding how best to relocate desert tortoises to make way for expansion of Fort Irwin Army training center near Barstow.

The effort to move the tortoises to new territory was suspended last fall when at least 90 of the 556 tortoises died after they were relocated. Most of those were killed by coyotes. Of those that survived, some returned to their home range on military property.

Now the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fort Irwin National Training Center have announced a "scoping period" ending Feb. 18 to hear the public's suggestions on what issues should be addressed before tortoises are again moved from Fort Irwin expansion areas.

A new relocation plan is expected to be done by spring, an ideal time to relocate tortoises, according to a BLM news release.

A recent analysis by Nevada-based biologists for the U.S. Geological Survey found that coyotes were killing tortoises at several locations in California and Nevada because drought had left little other prey available, said Roy C. Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The tortoise deaths last year near Fort Irwin "absolutely had nothing to do with the relocation," Averill-Murray said in a telephone interview from his office in Reno.

The U.S. Geological Survey analysis of tortoise deaths is expected to be presented at a symposium in Nevada later this month. The researchers who did the study could not be reached Thursday.

Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization, said she wants to learn more about the U.S. Geological Survey analysis but added that relocated tortoises were easy targets for coyotes.

Tortoises have natural homing instincts, she said, and many tried to head back to the military property after they were moved. As they traveled, the tortoises had no burrows in which to find refuge from coyotes, she said.

Another concern is disease. The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors, another environmental group, sued the BLM and the Army last year, saying relocated tortoises were exposed to diseased animals and placed in inferior habitat.

Nearly 2,000 tortoises have been targeted for removal from land that Fort Irwin is taking over for military exercises. The species is listed as threatened with extinction.

An environmental analysis, expected to be published early next month, is being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey with input from the California Department of Fish and Game, BLM, U.S. Army and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Moving Tortoises

What: Public comments and suggestions are being sought on plans to relocate desert tortoises from military property to public land in the desert.

How: Send written comments to BLM Barstow Field Office, Attention: Mickey Quillman, 2601 Barstow Road, Barstow, CA 92311. Comments also can be faxed to 760-252-6099 or e-mailed to mquillma@ca.blm.gov.