October 2, 2009

Army won't move tortoises this fall

The Press-Enterprise

U.S. Army officials have scrapped plans to move about 90 desert tortoises from Fort Irwin this month, saying they will wait for a larger relocation effort expected in the spring.

"For now, they are going to stay put," Army spokesman John Wagstaffe said.

Environmentalists criticized Army officials last month when they said they intended to go forward with an October relocation, even without the cooperation of the federal Bureau of Land Management. The BLM withdrew from the effort because of uncertainty over how many of the reptiles would survive the move from the training center north of Barstow to public land nearby.

The about-face is great news, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity. The group had threatened to sue to stop the October move.

"I am glad the Army came to its senses and decided to not move tortoises in the fall, when they have little food and water resources with hibernation and winter approaching," Anderson said.

The Army wants to remove the tortoises from 24,000 acres to make way for expanded training with tanks and other military vehicles, Wagstaffe said. That training is on hold for now, he said late Friday. Clearing tortoises from three expansion areas at Fort Irwin will cost the government millions of dollars, according to figures released last year.

Desert tortoises are threatened with extinction, and questions remain about whether moving them makes them more vulnerable to coyote attacks.

Last fall, the Army suspended a tortoise relocation effort in the same area after at least 90 of 556 tortoises moved in spring 2008 died, most of them killed by coyotes. The BLM participated in the previous relocation because many of the animals were moved to public land the agency oversees.

Last month, BLM officials backed away from helping the Army with the October move because of problems with research used to justify the operation. The research suggested that the relocated tortoises are just as likely to be killed by coyotes as other tortoises. But the biologist, Todd Esque with the U.S. Geological Survey, told BLM officials in August that his work was incomplete and needed more analysis, BLM officials have said.

Without the BLM's cooperation, the Army could not move the reptiles to BLM-managed public land and decided instead to relocate the tortoises to Army-owned land south of Fort Irwin, provided the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved. A spokeswoman for the wildlife agency said this week that the agency was still evaluating the Army's request.

The BLM is preparing an environmental study on plans for the spring to capture and move 1,100 tortoises from 70,000 acres targeted for expanded training on the west side of Fort Irwin. The tortoises would be relocated to BLM land near the Army base.

Now, tortoises from the smaller expansion area would be included in that effort.

"We decided it would make more sense to move them with the larger translocation," Wagstaffe said.