March 16, 2016

Military's tortoise relocation plan in jeopardy

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat areas near Barstow to protect them from live-fire exercises

Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center expansion area in Lucerne Valley.


The military has scrapped plans to move more than 1,400 protected desert tortoises from an expansion area at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms to BLM-managed habitat land this spring.

The Marines were gearing up to move the reptiles to Bureau of Land Management habitat territory near Barstow, so that the 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion area could be used this summer for live ammunition training.

A base spokesman said in an email Wednesday, March 16, that he is still trying to determine how the decision will affect the training plans.

The plan called for the tortoises to be moved as early as this month. To reduce stress on the animals, they were to be flown by helicopter to the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit, an area managed by the BLM southeast of Barstow. But the manager of the BLM’s Barstow Field Office, and Marines both sent emails Wednesday confirming that the move won’t be this spring.

The emails did not explain why the move was canceled.

But the postponement comes a week after environmentalists with the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal challenge to the planned move. And it comes a day after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said the agency had not yet approved a required relocation plan.

Meanwhile, time was running out to get the tortoises moved before the military exercises – if they do end up being held. The animals are threatened with extinction.

Marine Corps officials had said they wanted to relocate the desert tortoises while the weather was cooler.
Hotter temperature puts more stress on them, making them less likely to survive the move, officials have previously said.

Last week, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the BLM, contending that the agency had failed to fully examine how the move might harm desert tortoises and other wildlife.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said in an email that she’s pleased the tortoises will stay put, at least for now, allowing more time for analysis.

“BLM is wise to do a full analysis of the impacts of having desert tortoises from the Marine base moved onto the public lands that they manage,” her email said.

She said she was concerned that the moves could spread a respiratory disease that afflicts tortoises.

On Tuesday, March 15, Brian Croft, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency was still working on a relocation plan and a revised biological opinion about the move. The service must approve both documents before the move can occur.

“There are still some big hurdles to go over,” Croft said.

Also on Tuesday, Marine Corps Capt. Justin E. Smith said a date for the move will be announced once the relocation plan is finalized. The military also plans to study how the animals adapt to their new environment.

This research “will aid in gaining more information in the efforts to recover the population of the desert tortoise,” Smith said in an email.

“We remain steadfast in keeping with our obligation to serve as good stewards of the environment,” he said.