August 29, 2013

Tortoise rescue in Hi-Desert investigates Nevada kill-off

A male desert tortoise that is about 40 years old was rescued by the Joshua Tree Tortoise Rescue and is held by director Rae Packard. (Omar Ornelas, The Desert Sun)

Hi-Desert Star
Staff report

MORONGO BASIN — The headline read, “Hundreds of desert tortoises to be euthanized by 2014 at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center just outside Las Vegas.”

“My heart just sank,” Rae Packard, executive director of the Joshua Tree Tortoise Rescue, said after hearing the news. Since then, Packard says her rescue line has been ringing non-stop.

“At first, people thought it was us,” Packard said. She has had to explain that the tortoises marked for death are in Nevada.

Not believing the numbers, Packard called the man who was interviewed for the story, Roy Averill-Murray, head of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

Averill-Murray told her while the situation is dire, the numbers in the article were exaggerated, and only six tortoises are scheduled to die. Averill-Murray said those tortoises have been diagnosed with upper respiratory disease syndrome and are failing to thrive.

When Packard asked if she could pick up those tortoises and rehabilitate them at her facility, Averill-Murray said both Nevada and California state laws absolutely prohibit the interstate transport of desert tortoises.

“The fear is that if they escape from a rescue facility or adoptive home, the sick tortoises may contaminate healthy ones,” Packard explained.

She heard surreptitious talk of an underground movement to take the tortoises, Packard said by phone Wednesday. However, she cautioned no one should get involved in something like that. Transporting desert tortoises across state lines is a federal offense, and the fines reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

“I know that it’s an important law that went into effect to protect what is remaining of an already declining tortoise population,” Packard said, “But I believe an exception should be made in this case, especially if a cure for URDS is possible. That’s why the tortoise adoption programs were invented.”

Packard encourages those who have been moved by this story to reach out to federal legislative officials to urge them to continue funding the conservation center and to state officials to suspend the interstate transport law to stop this life-or-death crisis.