Save the tortoise!

United States Department of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management
West Mojave Habitat Conservation Plan
2601 Barstow Road
Barstow, California 92311
(760) 252-6080

In Reply Refer To: CA 062.97

RE: Results of the Fort Irwin Tortoise panel meeting of 18-19 January and 18 February 2000
From: Edward LaRue, West Mojave Plan Wildlife Biologist, Panel Coordinator
Date: 15 March 2000

To Whom It May Concern:

In Washington D.C., on 9 December 1999, members of the Department of the Interior and Department of the Army determined that there should be a meeting to discuss the effects of the Army April 1999 Fort Irwin expansion proposal on the recovery of the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), which is federally-listed as threatened north and west of the Colorado River, in portions of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. The charge from Washington D.C. to this panel was received on about 15 January 2000 and read as follows:

Convene a desert tortoise conservation planning team to determine what set of conservation measures could be put in place that would ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the desert tortoise in the West Mojave in light of the Army's plans for expansion on the National training Center/Fort Irwin, as described in the April 16, 1999, expansion proposal.

This task was discussed on 18-19 January and 18 February 2000. Coordination was provided by Edward LaRue, M.S., Wildlife Biologist for the West Mojave plan and William Haigh, J.D., project Manager for the West Mojave plan. panel members included Kristin Berry, ph.D., U.S. Geological Survey, former Recovery Team Member; William Boatman, ph.D., U.S. Geological Survey; Raymond Bransfield, M.S., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Thomas Egan, B.S., Lead Wildlife Management Biologist, Bureau of Land Management; Elliott Jacobson, D.V.M., ph.D., University of Florida, former Recovery Team Member; Rebecca Jones, B.S., California Department of Fish and Game; David Morafka, ph.D., California State University - Dominguez Hills, former Recovery Team Member; Reed Noss, ph.D., Conservation Science, Inc.; Mickey Quillman, M.S., Department of the Army; James Spotila, ph.D., Drexel University and Fort Irwin; and Richard tracy, ph.D., University of Nevada - Reno, former Recovery Team Member.

Findings of this panel are presented in this report and are organized as follows: (I) preface, (II) Importance of the Expansion Area to the Desert Tortoise and probabilities of Recovery, (III) Measures Necessary to Reduce the Likelihood of Jeopardy if Expansion Occurs, (IV) Conclusions, and (V) Endorsement of the Measures Identified in this Report.

I. preface

A. In regards to the West Mojave Recovery Unit,

1. The current status of the tortoise is further from recovery than when first listed in 1990. In 1990 when the tortoise was federally listed, the then-current knowledge of tortoise densities and distribution was based, in part, on approximately 800 transacts surveyed throughout the West Mojave between 1975 and 1982. Using those survey results, results from permanent Bureau of Land Management study plots, and other information, Dr. Kristin Berry produced maps in 1984 that depicted estimated tortoise abundance in the West Mojave. These maps were the "state-of-the-art" at the time the tortoise was listed.

During 1998 and 1999, approximately 2,500 tortoise sign transacts were surveyed in Desert Wildlife Management Areas (DWMAs) proposed by the West Mojave plan, private lands around California City, in the Bureau of Land Management's Stoddard Valley and Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle open areas, and on Fort Irwin. Most of the transacts (1,600 or 64%) were surveyed in the proposed DWMAs, which are expected to contain the best tortoise habitat, least management conflicts and support most of the tortoises remaining in the West Mojave. These surveys indicate that current tortoise numbers are very much lower than was estimated in 1984 on Dr. Berry's maps.

One indicator of tortoise abundance in a given area is measured by "Total Corrected Sign" or "TCS." TCS is the number of tortoise scat and burrows counted along a given transect where the surveyor differentiates separate events (e.g., three fresh scat of an adult tortoise located in the opening of a burrow is recorded as four pieces of total sign but only one TCS, as the size and freshness of the scat imply a single event or deposition of scat at that burrow by a single tortoise). A comparison of the raw TCS collected in the proposed DWMAs between 1975 and 1982 with the data collected in 1998-99 is provided in the following table:

  1975-19821998-1999
TCS #transects% transects# transects% transects
0 3818%43327%
1-3 572761538
4-8 452136423
9-16 46221389
17-28 209463
29-50 6370
50 1000

Comparing TCS data from 1984 with the preliminary data from 1998-99 shows a decline in TCS, with fewer sign being found on a greater proportion of transacts.

Specifically, 45% of the transacts surveyed between 1975 and 1982 had the lowest tortoise sign counts (between 0 and 3 pieces of sign), compared to 65% in 1998-99; the TCS category of 4-8 pieces of sign remained unchanged between earlier and later surveys; and 34% of the earlier transacts had the highest sign counts compared to 12% in 1998-99.

As stated above, the assumption is that the 1998-99 surveys were performed in what is considered to be the best tortoise habitat in the West Mojave Desert. Even so, no tortoise sign was found on 433 of 1603 transacts (27%) surveyed in these "best areas." Although the panel does not interpret this to mean that tortoises are absent, it does indicate that the species is not particularly common in just over a quarter of the best available habitat surveyed in the last two years.

2. Delays in implementing the Recovery plan have contributed toward the direction of a jeopardy biological opinion for the southern expansion of Fort Irwin. Based on tortoise surveys between 1975 and 1982, estimated densities in 1984, and tortoise sign counts in 1998-99, it is apparent that substantially fewer tortoises occur now than were estimated to occur in 1990 when the tortoise was listed or in 1994 when the Recovery plan for this species was completed. This is one reason this panel concludes that the protection of those remaining tortoises and their habitat is even a higher priority now than in 1994.

Under current management, many mitigation and conservation measures have been implemented in the West Mojave to protect the tortoise since its listing. The Bureau of Land Management has acquired approximately 82 mi2 of tortoise critical habitat through the Land Tenure Adjustment project since 1991 (an additional 18 mi2 of critical habitat has been acquired by the California Department of Fish and Game); removed sheep grazing from all tortoise critical habitat; leased grazing rights on the 44,000-acre pilot Knob Allotment to the Desert Tortoise preserve Committee for protection of the tortoise in that critical habitat area; experimented with raven (Corvus corax) control and formally consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a project-by-project basis under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act for all projects that may affect the desert tortoise, including cattle grazing and vehicle route designation.

In conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration, the California Department of transportation has also installed tortoise-barrier fencing along portions of Highway 58, Highway 14, and Fort Irwin Road to avoid vehicle related tortoise mortalities. Each of the four military bases in the West Mojave has also inventoried their lands for tortoises, consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop programmatic terms and conditions under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, and most have completed habitat management plans for the tortoise and other biological resources. The Biological Resources division of the U.S. Geological Survey currently employs five phD-level scientists to study the tortoise and its habitats in the West Mojave. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided workshops and organized meetings to help implement distance sampling to monitor tortoise trends.

Even so, additional conservation measures are identified in the Recovery plan and are reiterated in the proposed West Mojave plan (but still require adoption by the participating jurisdictions and affected interests). Some of these measures include formal establishment of DWMAs in the planning area; permanent retirement of cattle grazing from the pilot Knob Livestock Allotment; elimination of sheep grazing allotments within identified DWMAs; installation of tortoise-barrier fencing along Highway 395 and other roads identified in the Recovery plan; installation of smooth wire fencing along DWMA boundaries at strategic locations to minimize vehicle impacts from adjacent urban areas; installation of smooth wire fencing between Johnson Valley Off-highway Vehicle Area and the Ord-Rodman DWMA to reduce off-highway vehicle play impacts; and initiation of a semi-wild tortoise breeding program to rebuild and restore tortoise populations in conservation areas.

As presented in the September 1999 biological evaluation, the West Mojave plan also proposes the designation of open, closed, and limited routes of travel within DWMAs for all areas where it is currently lacking; recommends increased funding for route closure and rehabilitation; calls for increased ranger patrols; proposes to eliminate future use of unused, contingent utility corridors in DWMAs; proposes that all vehicles remain within 50 feet of designated open routes (currently allowed up to 300 feet); and would seek to eliminate or reduce other uses that conflict with tortoise recovery. The public is currently involved in considering these recommendations, with a final strategy anticipated through stakeholder consensus, EIS/R analysis and approval by FWS.

This panel, which includes four of the original eight Desert Tortoise Recovery Team members and biologists from all affected regulatory agencies, believes that the tortoise would be closer to recovery than it currently is and that current protections would have been augmented if the prescriptions given above had already been implemented. However, because few of these measures have been implemented (i.e., the West Mojave plan has not been completed), each of us concurs that the tortoise is worse off now than it was at the time of listing.

All available data support this team's conclusion that the current southern expansion proposal is likely to jeopardize the tortoise.

3. Given the above information, this panel concludes that the desert tortoise in the West Mojave Recovery Unit is more appropriately characterized as "endangered" than "threatened," even if Fort Irwin does not expand.

B. This panel was tasked with the following mission:

1. Yes or No: With no latitude to identify alternatives or geographical modifications, does expansion as presented in the April 1999 Army proposal constitute a jeopardy for the desert tortoise in the West Mojave Recovery Unit? As discussed above, it is the conclusion of this panel that the answer is "Yes, the expansion would constitute jeopardy in the West Mojave Recovery Unit."

2. This panel is required to justify its decision. We believe this decision is justified by the data and discussions given in this report.

3. If the answer to the above question is "jeopardy" for the desert tortoise, then this panel must identify mitigation measures for the expansion to reduce the level of impact to "no jeopardy," if possible. In Section III, below, this panel identifies measures that are considered essential to increase the probability of recovery and mitigate the impact of the proposed expansion.

C. This panel's findings are based upon the best available, albeit limited, data. Thus, our findings include timely implementation of an adaptive management program of research, monitoring, and resource management as outlined in Section III of this report.

D. Finally, at the direction of the Departments of the Interior and Army on 9 December 1999, this group was specifically asked not to discuss modifications of expansion boundaries and other alternative expansion scenarios. We feel that alternative boundaries could have been recommended that would have substantially reduced the impact of the expansion and perhaps avoided a jeopardy situation.

II. Importance of the Expansion Area to the Desert Tortoise and probabilities of Recovery

In this section, we discuss the importance of the Army, April 1999 proposed expansion area to tortoise recovery, and indicate probabilities of recovery with and without expansion into this area.

A. Importance of the Expansion Area to the Desert Tortoise.Asked why the proposed expansion area is important to tortoise recovery, this panel identified the following reasons:

  1. Most of the proposed expansion area has been identified as essential to tortoise recovery by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The southern and western portions of the proposed expansion area, calculated to be approximately 182 mi2, were designated in 1994 as tortoise critical habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The same 182 mi2 area was identified in 1994 as essential to tortoise recovery by the Recovery Team, and constitutes 15% of the proposed Superior-Cronese DWMA and 6.8% of all proposed DWMAs in the West Mojave. The loss of 182 mi2 of critical habitat from anywhere in the West Mojave is a serious, adverse impact to tortoise recovery.

2. Most of the proposed expansion area has been identified as essential to maintaining viable desert tortoise populations by the Bureau of Land Management. In 1988, the Bureau of Land Management identified Category I and II habitats as areas that would be managed to "maintain stable, viable populations of the desert tortoise." We calculate that 138 mi2 of the proposed expansion area are Category I Habitat and 45 mi2 are Category II Habitat. Thus, of the 1,288 mi2currently designated as Category I and II habitat in the West Mojave, approximately 182 mi2 (14%) would be lost to the expansion.

Such a large, contiguous block of public land as occurs in the western portions of the proposed expansion area, that supports a relatively large number of tortoises (see next point), is uncommon elsewhere in the West Mojave. The loss of 182 mi2 of Category I and II habitats from anywhere in the West Mojave is a serious, adverse impact to tortoise recovery.

3. Approximately 16.5% of the tortoise sign found during 1998 and 1999 surveys occurs within the proposed expansion area. Within the proposed expansion area, we found 1,253 TCS on 397 transacts, for an average of 3.16 TCS/transect; outside the expansion area and outside the installation, we found a total of 6,100 TCS on 1,810 transacts, for an average of 3.37 TCS/transect; on the installation, we found 249 TCS on 221 transacts, or 1.13 TCS/transect. Thus, 80.2% of the TCS was found throughout the surveyed portion of the West Mojave in none-expansion areas outside the installation; 16.5% was found in the Army's 1999 proposed expansion area; and 3.3% was found on Fort Irwin north of the UTM 90 line.

4. The tortoise distribution in the proposed expansion area may limit the spread of those infectious diseases important to the tortoise. The spatial distribution of tortoises within the proposed expansion area, particularly in the paradise Valley and eastern portions of Superior Valley, is one characterized by high density pockets surrounded by lower densities. Few sites are devoid of tortoises: 90 of 397 transacts (23%) surveyed in the proposed expansion area in 1999 did not identify any tortoise sign, compared to 561 of 1,810 (31%) of the 1998-99 transacts surveyed elsewhere in the West Mojave. This pattern may reduce the likelihood of epidemic disease outbreak that would lead to local extirpation of tortoises. However, studies are needed to determine the risk of tortoises in the proposed expansion area to disease outbreaks.

Based on Dr. Elliott Jacobson's research, only 10 of 110 tortoises tested in non-cantonment areas of Fort Irwin (e.g., Alvord Slope and Fort Irwin Study Site) tested positive for upper respiratory tract disease. Upon subsequent visits, these tortoises either tested negative or had low positive values. Given the limited, available data, the prevalence of upper respiratory tract disease appears not to be as pronounced in the vicinity of Fort Irwin as it is in other areas of the West Mojave, such as the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area. If tortoises are indeed relatively disease-free in this area, it may be due to the isolation from diseased populations or resistance to the disease. In either case, these tortoises contribute significantly to the recovery potential for tortoises in the West Mojave.

5. On a regional scale, the expansion would adversely affect connectivity between essential tortoise habitats located east and west of Fort Irwin. Currently, areas south of the UTM 90 line, on and off the installation, function as a connecting corridor between essential tortoise habitats (i.e., critical habitat and proposed DWMAs) located to the east and west. The southern expansion of Fort Irwin would predictably compromise this connectivity: with the loss of 182 mi2 of tortoise habitat, the expansion would (a) partially eliminate the existing corridor and (b) likely reduce the quality of habitat to the east and southeast (between Coyote Lake and Soda Mountains) due to an infusion of wind-blown dust and other indirect impacts [i.e., "sink effect" (where tortoises in protected areas are lost when they enter into new maneuver areas), subsidized raven predation, increased noxious weeds, unknown effects of obscurant smokes, etc.].

6. The proposed expansion area is comprised of relatively pristine, undisturbed habitat. As per the disturbance analysis completed by the Chambers Group in 1990, 223 of the 273 square miles (82%) in the proposed expansion area (which includes the 182 mi2 of critical tortoise habitat) were characterized as "Least Disturbed" (20.7 mi2 and the highest rating of habitat quality) and "Lightly to Moderately Disturbed" (202 mi2 and the second highest rating). Only 0.6 mi2 of the proposed expansion area was characterized as "Irretrievably Lost" (the lowest rating).

Although disturbance data collected during 1998-99 do not directly equate to the presence or absence of tortoises, they do provide an opportunity to compare the relative human impacts observed for a given area. Thus we found that the western portions of the proposed expansion area (excluding lands south of the UTM 90 line and Coyote Corner) had the fewest recorded disturbances: 12.9 disturbances per transect. When the Coyote Corner and UTM 90 lands are added, the entire 1999 Army proposed expansion area had 74.5 disturbances per transect. The relatively higher incidence of disturbances was due to numerous older tank and vehicle tracks and ordnance located south of the LTTM 90 line, but few newer disturbances were noted. This prevalence compares to 62.9 disturbances per transect observed throughout the remainder of the surveyed portions of the West Mojave and 631.8 disturbances per transect on Fort Irwin north of the UTM 90 line.

7. There are relatively few land uses that conflict with tortoise recovery in this area. Based on disturbance data collected in 1998 and 1999 and as discussed in the previous point, most of the area is relatively undisturbed and pristine. One reason for this is its relative remoteness from urban centers; Barstow, located 35 miles to the south, is the nearest city. Also, there are no off-highway vehicle areas open to free play in the vicinity, thus relatively little cross-country travel was noted away from existing roads; there are no utility corridors fragmenting the area (the Boulder Corridor is located just east of the proposed expansion area); no cattle allotments occur (the Cronese Lakes allotment is located just east), nor is there illegal sheep grazing as has been noted elsewhere in the West Mojave; although historic mining occurred at the abandoned Goldstone town site, no active mines are found in the area. And mainly, there is no urban interface, which presently threatens tortoises in all other DWMAs.

Given the remoteness we suspect that feral dogs and raven predation may be less a problem; we also suspect that fewer captive tortoises are released into this area, which may be one reason for the relative lack of upper respiratory tract disease; there are relatively fewer roads than found in most of the West Mojave (Wilderness Areas, pinto Mountains, eastern portions of Ord Mountains, and around pilot Knob are the only other places with as few roads), thereby providing relatively limited access for uses that conflict with tortoise recovery (i.e., poaching, animal vandalism, vehicle-related tortoise injury, increased incidence of fires and exotic weeds are suspected to be less of a threat in this area than most other places in the West Mojave).

The relatively low level of known and suspected anthropogenic impacts and conflicting land uses makes the proposed expansion area one of the least threatened areas in any of the four proposed DWMAs.

8. Occasional summer rains and other plant community differences associated with this area contribute to the significant biodiversity of perennial plant species that is found in only one other tortoise critical habitat unit in the West Mojave. The proposed expansion area is located on lands that receive relatively more summer rainfall than much of the West Mojave, particularly to the west where summer rains are nearly absent. One result of this added moisture (and perhaps higher elevations, heterogeneous topography and soil types, and other, unknown factors) is a relative diversity of perennial plant species in the proposed expansion area compared to areas around Victorville and California City, for example.

It is clear from the +/- 2,500 transacts surveyed throughout the West Mojave in the last two years, that the very highest perennial plant diversity in tortoise habitat is found in the western portions of the proposed expansion area and in the Ord Mountain area. Extensive areas between Victorville and California City, for example, support between 6 and 10 perennial plant species per transect, whereas the expansion and Ord Mountain areas have as many as 37 species per transect.

In and of itself, inclusion of this biodiversity in conservation areas is an important component of the West Mojave plan. Relative to the tortoise, shrubs provide thermoregulatory advantages (i.e., an escape from extreme temperatures), increased burrowing potential and subsequent protection of burrows, increased foraging potential (i.e., due to increased biomass of annual plants beneath the shrubs), a means by which juvenile tortoises can seek cover and escape from predators, among other things.

B. probabilities of Recovery. This panel asked the question, "Can the proposed expansion area he devoted to Army maneuvers and still recover the tortoise?" Five scenarios were discussed and relative probabilities of recovery were determined.

Scenario 1. Full implementation of the Recovery plan in 1995.

Scenario 2. Full implementation of the Recovery plan in 2000 without expansion to the south.

Scenario 3. Full implementation of this panel's conservation strategy given in Section III with expansion to the south.

(The likelihood of recovery is considered unacceptable for the following two scenarios)

Scenario 4. partial implementation of this panel's conservation strategy with expansion to the south.

Scenario 5. Untimely implementation of this panel's conservation strategy with expansion to the south.

Obviously, Scenario 1 is no longer available. Scenario 2 is the one preferred by this panel because it implements all the protective measures identified to conserve the tortoise and the expansion area is not lost from the region. Scenario 3 is more likely to recover the tortoise than either of the last two. If Scenario 3 is selected, its success is contingent not only on the timely execution of all its provisions, but also upon field conditions, such as health status and numbers of tortoises in the proposed expansion area, health status and numbers of tortoises in the proposed reserve area, prolonged drought conditions, and the quality and management of alternative habitats in proposed conservation areas. Some of these critical conditions are still unknown and unpredictable, and limit our confidence in Scenario 3

III. Measures Necessary to Reduce the Likelihood of Jeopardy if Expansion Occurs

Assuming the April 1999 proposed expansion occurs, this panel finds that recovery of the desert tortoise is more likely to occur than not, and jeopardy avoided, IF AND ONLY IF the following items ARE FULLY IMPLEMENTED IN THE TIME IDENTIFIED for each action.

A. Requirements Common to All proposed DWMAs. The measures given below are applicable to the four DWMAs proposed by the Desert Tortoise Recovery plan and reiterated in the developing West Mojave plan, which under the strategy identified herein, would be established as a single reserve (see Section III.B. for measures unique to each of the proposed DWMAs).

prior to initiating maneuvers in the proposed expansion area:

1. Complete an economic analysis to determine the cost of mitigation measures identified in this report.

2. Establish a reserve for the recovery of the desert tortoise. proposed reserve lands would include the remaining portions of the proposed Superior-Cronese DWMA, all of the proposed Fremont-Kramer DWMA, all of the proposed Ord-Rodman DWMA, and all of the proposed pinto Mountains DWMA (Figure 1). This proposed reserve would encompass approximately 1.4 million acres (2,187 mi2). Manage this reserve for the immediate recovery and long-term conservation of the desert tortoise.

3. purchase substantially all private lands within the reserve. provide sufficient funds and personnel to acquire these lands. At this time, we estimate that there are approximately 460,000 acres (719, mi2) of private lands within the reserve.

4. Implement a 1% development cap in the reserve. Only 1% of the lands within the reserve could be developed under this strategy. There would be no additional ground-disturbing development within the reserve once 14,000 acres (21.875 mi2) have been developed.

5. Withdraw all public lands within the reserve from location and appropriation under the mining laws of the United States. provide sufficient funds and staff to complete mineral withdrawal.

6. Allow no new use of utility corridors in reserve areas.

7. Employ two full-time law enforcement rangers in each DWMA for a period of 30 years. The sole task of the law enforcement rangers would be to enforce applicable management prescriptions in the reserve for the recovery of the tortoise.

8. Designate a route network that is consistent with tortoise recovery and limit all vehicle use to designated routes of travel. Limit open routes to those necessary for management and use consistent with the protection of the desert tortoise and the California Desert Conservation Area plan's Multiple Use Class Limited guidelines. All other roads would be closed and revegetated. Funding must be sufficient to pay for the personnel and materials necessary to complete route closure and restoration throughout the reserve. Employ one biologist, one natural resource specialist, and two interpretative park rangers (to interface with the public and implement pertinent prescriptions) in each DWMA until route closure and restoration is completed.

9. Restrict parking, stopping, and camping to previously disturbed areas within 15 feet of designated roads.

10. Allow no organized, permitted events in reserve areas of a competitive nature (e.g., vehicle races).

11. Allow hunting as currently regulated, but do not allow general shooting in any reserve area.

B. Requirements for Specific Reserve Areas. Implement each of the following measures in the time frame given to realize the probability of recovery identified above for Scenario 3

1. Proposed Superior-Cronese DWMA

Within two years of formal adoption of this plan by the Army and Department of the Interior:

a. Retire the following grazing allotments: Cronese Lakes perennial Cattle Allotment, Harper Lake perennial Cattle Allotment, pilot Knob perennial Cattle Allotment, and all ephemeral sheep allotments.

2. Proposed Ord-Rodman DWMA

Within two years of formal adoption of this plan by the Army and Department of the Interior:

a. Retire the following grazing allotments: Ord Mountain perennial Cattle Allotment and Johnson Valley Ephemeral Sheep Allotment.

b. Install fencing in appropriate places to eliminate impacts from adjacent Bureau of Land Management Vehicle Use Areas (i.e., Johnson Valley Open Area to the east and Stoddard Valley Open Area to the west).

c. Eliminate the Johnson Valley to Stoddard Valley Corridor and Johnson Valley to parker Corridor from the California Desert Conservation Areaplan.

3. Proposed Fremont-Kramer DWMA

Within two years of formal adoption of this plan by the Army and Department of the Interior:

a. Retire all ephemeral sheep allotments from this DWMA.

b. Install tortoise barrier fencing along Highway 395 between Shadow Mountain Road and Randsburg. (Note: It is essential that culverts are constructed at the time of road widening for this measure to function properly).

c. Install urban interface fencing west of Silver Lakes/Helendale, along the southern boundary of the DWMA west of Highway 395, and around the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area.

4. Proposed Pinto Mountain DWMA

Applicable measures given above in Section III.A. would apply to this DWMA. No additional measures were identified.

C. Specific Requirements of the Army. The following measures have been identified for implementation by the Army in the time lines specified: 1. The Army shall implement the following measures in perpetuity:

a. Allow no vehicular traffic on or within 500 meters of Coyote Dry Lake or Superior Dry Lake. This width may be reduced or enlarged if specified studies warrant the modification.

b. Restrict off-road access through the Reserve to Fort Irwin from the south to the Mannix trail. Adequately maintain and mark the trail to avoid adverse environmental effects on the reserve,

c. Implement the best practices for training to eliminate adverse impacts of wind blown dust and obscurant smokes on the organisms and environment of the reserve. Modify training if studies show that these impacts are incompatible with reserve management and function.

2. Prior to initiating maneuvers in the proposed expansion area, the Army shall implement the following measures:

a. Establish an independent advisory group of scientists and stakeholders to (i) provide peer review of environmental considerations at Fort Irwin, (ii) meet at least once a year in an annual seminar to review the previous year's research findings, and (iii) provide recommendations to the Chief of Staff of Fort Irwin for future research and conservation needs.

b. Initiate studies providing comprehensive demographic and health surveys of all proposed expansion areas using best available techniques, as determined by the independent advisory group. These studies must be completed promptly, within the first two years following adoption of this plan. The results will provide the first assessments from which experimental mitigation measures and/or "off limits" zones will be determined (see point C.3., below). At the same time carry out the following studies on the desert tortoise: (i) life history and demography (25 years), (ii) physiology and disease/pathology (10 years), (iii) epidemiology of diseases (10 years).

c. Complete a pilot translocation study to determine the efficacy of relocating healthy desert tortoises from the proposed expansion area. Use results of the pilot translocation study to determine the best placement and use of tortoises that are eventually removed from the expansion area.

Translocation is not mitigation, but rather a way to avoid killing an unknown number of resident animals. It is experimental, and results of the studies should benefit recovery efforts. Some goals of the pilot study include: (i) determine the efficacy of translocation; (ii) assess translocation as a possible tool for tortoise recovery; (iii) use any animals tested positive for upper respiratory tract disease to further our understanding of the disease; and (iv) possibly use animals to study the efficacy of a headstarting program.

It is clear that more discussion and planning are needed, but this panel concluded that translocation site(s) (i) should be fenced; (ii) have conflicting land uses eliminated; (iii) occur on public lands even if that means purchasing private lands; (iv) be isolated from and not contiguous to reserve areas; and (v) receive only healthy tortoises that test negative for upper respiratory tract disease.

We identified several, alternative translocation sites that could be used in the pilot study (listed in no particular order of preference; see Figure 2): Brisbane Valley, Cady Mountains to Broadwell Valley, west of Highway 14, undeveloped areas by California City, upper Johnson Valley or Stoddard Valley (which are presently Bureau of Land Management off highway vehicle areas open to free play), appropriate portions of Edwards Air Force Base or China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, north slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains, and Ripley Desert Woodland State park in the Antelope Valley. Whereas several of these areas could be used in the pilot study, there is a general consensus that the final translocation site may need to be as many as 100 mi2 in size and meet the criteria given in the previous paragraph.

d. Using results of the pilot translocation study, either remove tortoises off the expansion lands, or establish a provisional "off-limits" area on expansion lands that will remain in force until the independent advisory group resolves the future of land use. The advisory group may determine whether continued protection at the site, or other mitigation, best advances recovery of the tortoise in the West Mojave Desert. If relocation represents a net gain for the West Mojave population, then relocate healthy animals to spatially adequate and ecologically appropriate reserve habitat that is still proximate to the land expansion.

e. Establish a desert tortoise study area. Delineate the Fort Irwin Study Site, areas east of the western edge of the Alvord Mountains, and that portion of the reserve east of Coyote Lake on maps and restrict all uses to studies of the desert tortoise. Maintain these areas as part of the reserve, and ensure that they are off limits to maneuvers for as long as the Army trains on the installation.

f. Construct a tortoise barrier fence along the common boundary between the expansion and reserve areas. The fence will preclude tortoises from the proposed expansion area and be sufficiently marked to ensure that maneuvers do not enter into the reserve area. Maintain the integrity of the fence for as long as the Army trains on the installation.

g. Establish a cooperative desert tortoise adoption center and health program in Barstow. Fund the establishment of the center and its first 10 years of operation. This would be in lieu of, for example, inoculating tortoises against diseases elsewhere in the West Mojave. Such an effort is impractical because no vaccine has been developed. Also, in one Nevada case, finding all tortoises even during focused surveys on several hundred acres proved difficult, requiring as many as eight separate surveys to find all juvenile animals.

3. Long term or permanent "off-limits" areas must be considered for all or part of the proposed expansion area if the independent advisory group finds that none of the experimentally tested mitigation measures are adequate to compensate for the loss of tortoises from the expansion area. Furthermore, if any of the following contingencies come to pass, tortoise habitat within the expansion area must be protected from training as long as these conditions exist: the expansion area tortoise population proves (i) to be the largest remaining population in the West Mojave Desert; (ii) to be the most healthy surviving population in the West Mojave Desert; or (iii) to be so genetically, morphologically, or ecologically distinct that its loss would significantly compromise recovery of the tortoise in the West Mojave Desert regardless of other mitigation measures.

IV. Conclusions

When the tortoise was listed in 1990, Dr. Berry's 1984 maps portrayed the then-current information for tortoise densities and distribution in the West Mojave. Based on survey information completed in 1998-99, we now know that very few tortoises occur in the West Mojave compared to the 1975-82 data and 1984 estimates. These data and other information given herein led this panel to conclude that (a) the desert tortoise is more rightly characterized as "endangered" than "threatened" in the West Mojave Recovery Unit and (b) the southern expansion would likely jeopardize the continued existence of the tortoise in the West Mojave.

Given these findings, this panel identified measures that it considered suitable to increase the probability of tortoise recovery even if Fort Irwin expands. These measures are biological recommendations to the Department of the Interior and Department of the Army of a conservation strategy that most of this panel believes will benefit tortoise recovery in spite of the expansion. They are the suggestions of the members of this panel only, and should be viewed as no more than that.

We feel that these measures, some of which (like translocation) require further refinement, would (a) reduce or eliminate uses that conflict with rapid recovery of the tortoise in the West Mojave; (b) facilitate tortoise recovery by consolidating public land ownership and implementing protective management prescriptions; (c) provide sufficient funds to study the tortoise, implement protective measures, and facilitate management under the West Mojave plan; and, in so doing, (d) have a reasonably high probability of increasing the likelihood of recovery of the desert tortoise in spite of the expansion.

V. Endorsement of the Measures Identified in this Report

My signature below indicates that I endorse the findings and recommendations of this report.

My endorsement, however, is conditioned upon the full and complete implementation of all measures set forth herein. Failure to implement the recommendations of this report, for any reason whatsoever, waives my endorsement. Moreover, my endorsement of this report does not constitute support or approval of the expansion proposal.

William Boarman, Ph.D., U.S. Geological Survey,
Date 3/10/00
Thomas Egan, U.S. Bureau of Land Management,
Date 3/10/00
Elliott Jacobson, D.V.M., Ph.D., University of Florida,
Date 3/10/00
Edward LaRue, Jr., U.S. Bureau of Land Management,
Date 3/17/00
David Morafka,Ph.D., California State University,
Date 3/09/00
Reed Noss, Ph.D., Conservation Science Inc.,
Date 3/17/00
Mickey Quillman, Department of the Army,
Date 3/14/00
James Spotila, ph.D., Drexel University/Fort Irwin,
Date 3/14/00
Richard Tracy, ph.D., University of Nevada, Reno,
Date 3/08/00


My signature below attests to the accuracy of the following statements, indicates that they are my own, and that for the reasons given below I cannot endorse all of the findings and recommendations given in this report.

Rebecca Jones, California Department of Fish and Game
Date: 3/10/2000

"Upon review of the revised Fort Irwin panel Report, I have concluded that I cannot endorse it. The reasons for this are as follows. First I feel that the number of tortoises that could be lost due to expansion would have to be considered a jeopardy. This population is probably the healthiest remaining population in the West Mojave Recovery Unit and may be needed in future times to replenish other populations to attain recovery in the West Mojave. Secondly, is the loss of 182 square miles for some of the most pristine tortoise habitat that remains in the West Mojave area. Which brings me to the third point of translocation. More data are needed regarding translocation of tortoises. The remaining habitat may not be capable of sustaining additional tortoises without being restored or rehabilitated. Could healthy tortoises be put into an environment where URtd [upper respiratory tract disease] is prevalent and survive? Fourthly, the mitigation measures proposed by the panel are desperately need to recover the tortoise, but I am afraid that pressures from user groups within the desert would change the measures proposed. politics would end up playing a role in this. For these reasons, I feel that the expansion would pose a jeopardy to the tortoise and I cannot endorse the report."


March 14, 2000

To: Ed LaRue

From: Ray Bransfield

Subject: Endorsement of and Comments on the Fort Irwin Tortoise panel Summary

I cannot endorse the conclusions of the panel. I agree with the conclusion the panel reached that the loss of the desert tortoises and their habitat from the expansion area constitutes a severe adverse effect on this species, rising to the level of jeopardy. However, the panel did not, to my mind, provide any scientific rationale as to why their proposal to offset the effects of the expansion would remove the jeopardy. Their primary rationale seems to be that the Army has the money to do the job and the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do not. As I stated during the meeting I think the panel members were making decisions based on several assumptions of the specific circumstances that are occurring in the western Mojave Desert. We did not attempt to bolster these assumptions by contacting others who could provide more precise information or by gathering it ourselves. A few of these assumptions involve the pace of development and how it is likely to affect desert tortoises in the future, the cost of land acquisition, and the efficacy of mitigation measures. If upper respiratory tract disease or other such factors continue to reduce the number of desert tortoises in the western Mojave Desert, maintaining as many desert tortoises and as much habitat as possible is, in my opinion, the best way to ensure that the species will survive.

My signature below attests to the accuracy of the following statements, indicates that they are my own, and that for the reasons given, I cannot endorse all of the findings and recommendations given in this report.


Kristin Berry, Ph.D., U.S. Geological Survey

Date March 14, 2000

I believe that members of the Fort Irwin Tortoise panel made admirable efforts to develop a consensus statement during the three days of meetings on January 18 and 19 and February 18 and in subsequent discussions via electronic mail, phone, and in person. Unfortunately, we were unable to come to a full agreement. I agree with much that is in the report, e.g., that the current status of the tortoise is further from recovery than when first listed, that delays in implementing the Recovery plan have contributed toward the direction of a jeopardy biological opinion for the southern expansion of Ft. Irwin, that tortoises within the West Mojave Recovery Unit are more appropriately characterized as "endangered" and with most of the Measures Necessary to Reduce the Likelihood of Jeopardy if Expansion Occurs. My major reservations about endorsing the Revised Version of the Fort Irwin Tortoise panel Report fall into five categories: First, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a jeopardy opinion on a similar proposal many years ago. In spite of our group efforts to come up with a plan to mitigate the effects of expansion, I remain doubtful that the proposed mitigations will be effective in counter-acting the loss of tortoises and habitat and that recovery can still occur. Second, critical scientific information to support a major change in position is missing, or, at least in this third version presented by electronic mail, is still flawed... One example of missing critical data is on effects of translocation on desert tortoises by sex, age class, and health status, especially if translocation is to habitats and regions different from the original home sites. Too much remains unknown about translocation. Another issue is that critical data are not yet available on relative abundances of desert tortoises from the 1998-1999 transects for sign. The data presented so far are raw, unanalyzed, have not been presented in writing where we could review the material. It desperately needs analysis and peer review. I am seeing some of the data in the Revised Version for the first time. Third, the possible or probable loss of an undetermined number of tortoises (my estimates range from 2,000 to 10,000 animals) living on the 182 square miles plus the loss of the habitat itself is extremely serious and difficult to offset, even with stringent and well-planned mitigations, such as those in the Revised Version. Fourth, such a plan sets a precedent that a significant number of tortoises and large amounts of critical habitat in California's most threatened Recovery Unit can be traded for mitigation, no matter how large the loss and how serious the threat to the population. The West Mojave Recovery Unit is in serious trouble and needs immediate implementation of recovery measures, These actions need to be taken now, and without coupling a monetary inducement that in turn requires such substantial losses. Fifth, there are other social and political factors that I find troubling: is the proposal realistic? The proposed actions, while desperately needed, will be difficult actions for some sectors of the public to accept. In effect large areas of land currently in multiple use will be converted to reserve status, and protective measures will be implemented with mitigation dollars. At the same time, 182 square miles of critical habitat will be lost. The "wiggle room" for more public use of the habitat has been virtually eliminated. The potential is high for large-scale tortoise translocations that will create extremely serious controversies within the public sector. The Bureau of Land Management and other agencies have already made commitments to their constituencies to involve them in the planning process for the West Mojave and, if this Revised plan is approved, those commitments will have to be altered. trust in government will be eroded with some if not many, user groups. For these and other factors noted below, I cannot endorse the Revised plan.

Back to: Fort Irwin Expansion Information | Saving The Tortoise

back to top arrow