Save the tortoise!

Recent significant events include:

• 03/17/08: CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY FILES NOTICE OF INTENT TO SUE OVER FORT IRWIN TORTOISE TRANSLOCATION

LOS ANGELES— Based on new science that documents health hazards of moving desert tortoises, the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors today filed notice of their intent to sue three government agencies over the relocation of hundreds of these charismatic and imperiled animals as “mitigation” for the impacts on tortoises from the expansion of the Fort Irwin army base.

“Fort Irwin’s expansion is always been a bad deal for tortoises. We can’t stop the expansion, but we can ensure that the relocation of these rare animals is done right”, said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “With the severity of the impacts to tortoises from the Fort Irwin expansion, it is essential that the Army’s mitigation be as successful as possible.”

Despite the potential to drive the tortoise closer to extinction, in 2001 Congress authorized Fort Irwin to expand into some of the best desert tortoise habitat remaining in the western Mojave desert. As partial mitigation, the Army agreed to move a majority of the tortoises from the expansion area onto other public lands now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The new lands, however, provide much lower-quality habitat and have pockets of diseased tortoises.

Desert tortoise relocation has never been attempted on such a large scale, and even “successful” small-scale projects have had a more than 20-percent mortality rate. The current relocation plan will move healthy tortoises into areas where diseased tortoises live, which is against the recommendation of epidemiologists. And the lands into which the tortoises will be moved consist of far poorer habitat because of numerous roads, illegal off-road vehicle routes, houses, illegal dumping, and mines. This is why the area currently supports low numbers of existing desert tortoise, some of which are diseased.

“Moving healthy tortoises into low-quality habitat that contains diseased tortoises is a recipe for disaster,” said Anderson.

Having survived tens of thousands of years in California’s deserts , desert tortoise numbers have declined precipitously in recent years. The crash of populations is due to numerous factors including disease, crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, habitat degradation, and predation by dogs and ravens. Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise, which is California’s official state reptile, is now protected under both federal and California’s endangered species acts.

Recently, population genetics studies have identified that the desert tortoise in the west Mojave desert is distinctly different from its relatives to the north, east and south. This finding sheds new light on why increased conservation and relocation success is more important than ever at the Fort Irwin site.

“The relocation plan could be much improved by reducing the number of tortoises being moved, making sure only healthy tortoises are moved into healthy populations, and improving the habitat quality in the relocation area by making it a tortoise preserve,” suggested Anderson, “where there are a minimal number of roads, no off-road vehicles, dumping, or mining allowed, and strict enforcement.”

[Visit the Center's Desert Tortoise Page for additional information]

• 10/01/07: FEDERAL JUDGE ORDERS STAY ON BLM PLAN TO INCREASE CATTLE GRAZING IN DESERT TORTOISE HABITAT

Barstow, CA - On Monday October 1, a Federal judge agreed with conservation groups and ordered the Bureau of Land Management to hold off on its decision to increase cattle grazing on 136,167 acres of public land south of Barstow, California. The Ord Mountain Allotment is within the California Desert Conservation Area and includes 101,033 acres of a Desert Wildlife Management Area (DWMA) that the Bureau is supposed to manage to protect threatened desert tortoises and other imperiled animals and plants.

In his decision, Administrative Law Judge Harvey C. Sweitzer halted BLM’s decision to increase the number of cows authorized because the conservation groups demonstrated that this increase is above the carrying capacity of the allotment.

“Cattle impact desert tortoise in many ways. Cows trample tortoises, their eggs and their burrows, they compete for important food plants, degrade the habitat and promote the spread of weeds and nonnative vegetation” said Michael J. Connor, California Science Director for Western Watersheds Project. “This plan is particularly bad because it will increase the number of cattle grazing in desert tortoise habitat and concentrate those cattle in the most sensitive critical habitat areas in dry years, the very years when the tortoises are most at risk.”

“BLM cannot continue to make decisions regarding grazing that fail to take into account the true impacts to our public lands,” said Lisa Belenky, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.”

The appeal of the BLM’s decision was brought by Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Desert Survivors. The conservation groups are demanding that the BLM complete the full environmental review that is required by law and meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act to promote the recovery of this threatened species.

[The decision is available at the Western Watersheds Project website]

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