August 28, 2014

Dozens of desert tortoise sterilized

By Caroline Bleakley
KLAS-TV Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- It might seem odd the desert tortoise, an endangered species, needs population control, but that's what wildlife experts are recommending.

A two-day clinic to teach veterinarians how to sterilize tortoises ended Thursday.

Wildlife experts say so many people have had desert tortoises as pets, the population has gotten of out control. The belief is if they work to reduce the amount of captive desert tortoises, it will help the endangered ones in the wild.

"What's happened is we have an unusual situation where we have too many in a captive situation and people have numerous tortoises and they breed. These desert tortoises won't be able to breed anymore after these surgeries," said Mike Senn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Veterinarians like Mary Lee are learning how to sterilize tortoises at two-day clinic.

"I'd say it's pretty urgent," Dr. Lee said.

She frequently sees desert tortoises at her Las Vegas clinic because so many are kept as pets. The problem is they breed easily in backyards. It's difficult to tell whether they're male or female until they're at least 10 years old, and they can live as long as 100 years.

"We have a large number of tortoises from one individual. It started with three tortoises about 20 years ago and when we checked two weeks ago, he had 54," Senn said.

Because of budget cuts, the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is closing at the end of the year. That means when tortoises aren't wanted as pets anymore, there's no place for them to go.

Senn says says about 70 tortoises are being sterilized at the clinic, but homes have only been found for half of them and they can't be released into the wild because they may spread disease to other tortoises listed as endangered since 1989.

The clinic is aimed at ultimately reducing the number of captive tortoises.

"When we have to manage the captive populations, like when we had them going to the center, it was a very, very high cost," Senn said.

The two-day sterilization clinic cost about $35,000. The funding came from Clark County. It's money raised through fees paid by developers when they build on desert land.