Desert tortoises were once so plentiful in the American Southwest that anyone driving through the desert picked them up to take home as pets. Habitat destruction, urbanization and disease have resulted in the tortoise’s numbers dwindling by 90 percent since the 1980s. In 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Service proclaimed the tortoise a threatened species.
Just over two decades later, with an estimated 100,000 tortoises surviving in Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada, a Las Vegas conservation center that has sought to care for hundreds of tortoises says it must euthanize half as federal funding disappears.
The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is a 220-acre holding and research facility that has been supported with funds from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), via fees paid by developers who have disturbed the public lands where the tortoise makes its home.
Im the early 2000s, Nevada’s housing boom provided ample funds for the conservation center’s budget. But the recession resulted in a shrinking of the housing market — only $290,000 in federal mitigation fees has come in from developers in the past 11 months — and to the BLM and the local government finding themselves short on funds. As a result, the center is to be closed by the end of 2014.
In its 200 million years of existence, the desert tortoise has evolved a number of habits that have made it particularly hard for it to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, notes the Washington Post:
Laws to protect the panicky plodders ban hikers from picking them up, since the animals are likely dehydrate themselves by voiding a year’s worth of stored water when handled. When they’re moved, they nearly always attempt to trudge back to their burrows, foiling attempts to keep them out of harm’s way. They’re also beset by respiratory infections and other illnesses.
Most of the tortoises at the conservation center are former pets whose owners no longer wanted them.
At the conservation center, the tortoises have been living out their days (they can live up to 100 years) eating scrubby grass and ducking under protective PVC piping. While the center staff seeks to release as many as possible, many are too feeble or infected with disease to survive in the wild. In fact, the upper respiratory illnesses that tortoises are susceptible to have been linked to their being handled by humans.
More and more tortoises are being brought to the conservation center, adding to the 1,400 who already reside there. Hundreds of these tortoises are now faced with euthanization. “It’s the lesser of two evils, but it’s still evil,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray said about the plan. He hopes that the research function of the center might at least be saved and is seeking out alternative funding sources.
Research like a 2006 report by United States Geological Survey (pdf) is crucial to determine the effectiveness of recovery efforts. Killing endangered tortoises because of a budget shortfall is, it goes without saying, a step in the wrong direction and all the more after so many efforts have been expended to preserve them.
Help prevent the euthanization of hundreds of desert tortoises and tell the Bureau of Land Management to keep the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center open!
Photo from Thinkstock