March 31, 2016

Tortoise a road block for Marines

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


An adult desert tortoise weighs about 12 pounds and can take days to travel a mile, yet the reptiles have managed to get one of most formidable forces on earth – the United States Marine Corps – to reconsider a large training mission.

The Marines plan to conduct live ammunition training in August, using tanks and other heavy weaponry at their Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.

To prevent harming about 1,400 tortoises living in this stretch of the Mojave Desert, the military now plans to limit operations in its combat center expansion area in the Johnson Valley northwest of Landers.

The Marines had hoped to airlift the reptiles this spring to federally managed habitat land near Barstow to get them safely out of the way.

But military officials and federal land mangers recently announced that the relocation can’t proceed until they analyze how the move would affect tortoises and other wildlife already living in the recipient areas.

The spring move was canceled shortly after an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a legal challenge to it. Desert Tortoises are protected by the Endangered Species Act because they are listed as threatened with extinction.

Marine Capt. Justin E. Smith, a spokesman for Twentynine Palms, said by email that the extend of the use of 88,000-acre Johnson Valley expansion has not been determined, but training “will not negatively impact the desert tortoise species.”

The Marines “will comply with all environmental management requirements.”

Brian Croft, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said he expects to talk with the Marines about how to avoid harming tortoises. The Marines, for example, may keep tanks and other motorized vehicles on designated roadways when traveling through tortoise areas.

The August training will be a large-scale, live-ammunition operation involving three battalions operating in extreme desert heat in real world warfare conditions, said Smith’s email. Last year’s exercises included troops from Canada and the United Kingdom.

The Johnson Valley has traditionally been an off-road-vehicle recreation area managed by the federal Bureau of Land Manage. But in late 2013, Congress added the valley to the Air Ground Combat Center.

Marine and BLM officials will hold a public meeting to discuss the Johnson Valley situation from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 2, at the Lucerne Valley Community Center in Lucerne.