By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
It wasn’t God; it was Congress, in the form of a rider sponsored by Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein and the district’s Republican congressman, Jerry Lewis (chair of the House Appropriations Committee and honored by Rolling Stone in 2006 as one of the 10 worst Congress members), attached to a larger appropriations bill at the end of 2000. In January 2002, President Bush, perhaps knowing something the rest of us didn’t at the time, signed into law the Fort Irwin Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 2001. In a new political climate, Fish and Wildlife signed off on the plan in 2004. It appropriated $75 million for tortoise mitigations, mostly in the form of land acquisitions, but it included $8.5 million in research and monitoring money aimed at measuring the long-term impacts of translocation on the tortoises. It was a windfall for tortoise study, but it also meant the expansion would go forward on lands deemed too critical to tortoise survival just a decade earlier.
Flight of the Tortoises
Wagstaffe, with a healthy supply of cigarettes in tow, drives with us east on the I-15 into the desert. About halfway to Baker, we take the Rasor Road exit, and veer north several miles into the translocation area where 40 or so tortoises are being resettled over the course of several days.
We walk up into the wilderness and find Dr. William Boarman, a jolly, bearded fellow, who is shaped a bit like an upright tortoise. He’s with Conservation Science Research and Consulting, one of the project’s primary contractors, and is the biologist in charge of this tortoise group. His main mission is to monitor their reproduction habits, movements, habitat choices and long-term survival rates. Other biologists, including Dr. Berry, are studying the health, stress and disease factors of the new and resident populations.
“There are four basic things we’re looking at,” Boarman says. “One is called hard release. It’s where you take a tortoise and just stick it under a bush. The other is called a soft release, where you take a tortoise and build a burrow and put it in the burrow — give it a home initially. Most of the animals are being moved 5 to 20 miles from where they lived, but we’ve got one group that we’re moving no more than a quarter-mile from where they live. So we’re comparing short-distance with long-distance translocation. And we also build pens — large 5-hectare [about 12-acre] pens — to see if putting them in a pen for a few months will help keep them in the area.”
The tortoises being placed here were rounded up yesterday. Upon arrival, they are weighed, measured, given a quick health checkup and released. If they have transmitters, those are checked to make sure they are functional. When we come upon a sturdy-looking male that is being hard-released under a creosote bush, the favored variety for tortoises, I ask how old he is.
“Forty or 50 is what I’d guess,” Boarman says. “But he could be older. They can live to be 75 or 100. You really can’t tell.”
I make a joke about 70 being the new 60 with these tortoises.
“Actually, I think 30 is the new 60,” says Boarman. “They are dying young now.”
I ask how traumatic this type of relocation is on the animals.
“I don’t know,” he says, resignedly. “We can’t get into his brain. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but what we have found most of them do, once they start moving around, is leave the area. They know it’s not home and they’re looking for home, I think.
“They do seem to have some sense roughly what direction home is in. Most of them are moving north.”
North is Fort Irwin, where they came from. But they won’t be able to get back in because one of the mitigations required that a fence be built on each side of Fort Irwin Road. The fence is 18 inches above and below ground and covers a total of 74 miles, including both sides of the road. It cost $900,000 to build.
“That fence is going to be tortoise Wounded Knee,” I suggest. Everybody laughs, somewhat uncomfortably.
“It could be, and that’s what we are looking at,” says Boarman.
I say I’m worried about our middle-aged male right here.
“That’s what this stuff is for,” Wagstaffe chimes in. “We’ve never done this size translocation before. We’d like them to be really happy here and stay, but we don’t know. You can’t judge on a couple of tortoises, but when you move as many as we’re moving, this is going to give us a great statistical analysis of what happens.
“We’re not dumping and running,” he adds. “They’ll be tracking these guys for years.”