Marines Relocating 1,500 Desert Tortoises for Training Center Expansion
In just a couple of weeks, the largest desert tortoise relocation ever will get underway in California’s Mojave Desert. The U.S. Marine Corps will be relocating about 1,500 desert tortoises in order to protect them – not from some natural disaster, like a flood or earthquake, but because the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twenty-Nine Palms is about to expand onto the tortoises’ habitat.
The Marine Corps will be using the tortoises’ former 88,000-acre habitat to conduct large-scale training exercises for specialized situations. “These scenarios combine the movement of three infantry battalions with aircraft support, ground troops and live fire,” reports the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the relocation project. That particular location is the only one with sufficient land and airspace to meet the training requirements, according to the official U.S. Marine Corps website.
The only thing stopping this $50-million relocation project is if someone appeals it before March 21. The relocation was supposed to take place a year ago, but was delayed when the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) threatened to sue on the grounds that federal agencies didn’t fully examine whether the move could harm the tortoises, which are listed as a threatened species.
So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) requested and received additional time to review the project. It was green-lighted earlier this year when the FWS declared the relocation wouldn’t jeopardize the tortoises’ survival. The Marines promised to take measures to protect the tortoises during and after the move.
After the desert tortoises leave their burrows later this month or early in April, most of them, in groups to help preserve their important social networks, will be flown by helicopter to the Ord-Rodman Critical Habitat Unit on federal land that’s about 100 miles away. The area is overseen by the BLM.
Half of the Relocated Desert Tortoises Could Die
Although a critical habitat unit might sound like a safe place for the tortoises, they will be losing nearly 140 square miles of habitat and moving to an area where their population has been declining.
“This is the largest translocation of tortoises in the Mojave Desert, and they’re moving them to areas where tortoises are dying off and we don’t know why,” Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the CBD, told the Press-Enterprise.
Environmental experts have warned that, based on previous relocation cases, as many as half of the desert tortoises could die within three years because they won’t be able to find or dig underground burrows that shelter them and protect them from predators. In 2008, when California was in the middle of a three-year drought, the U.S. Army stopped its plan to relocate 670 desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert after 90 of them were killed by coyotes.
But Chris Otahal, a wildlife biologist for the BLM’s Barstow field office, is optimistic about the upcoming move. He told the Press-Enterprise that all the rain in California this winter will be beneficial to the tortoises, providing them with plenty of wildflowers to eat while providing plenty of other food for their predators. “It’s much better for the tortoises when we have more food resources,” he said.
The Marine Corps will use nonlethal green laser beams to scare away ravens, for whom baby tortoises are “walking tortellini,” biologist Brian Henen, who’s the head of the relocation project, told the Los Angeles Times. “Techno-tortoises,” realistic-looking hatchlings that emit grape-juice derived irritants when bitten, will also be used in raven no-fly zones.
If the relocation project isn’t appealed again this year, here’s wishing safe travels and long lives to these desert tortoises, who can live 80 years or more. And with Trump promising to increase military spending by $54 billion and a new EPA chief who has shown very little regard for the environment, here’s hoping this isn’t merely the first species given a possible death sentence in order to make room for war training centers.
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service