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The big male pauses, as if he’s considering what we’re saying.
“He’s a ham and an old guy,” says Kahn. “I bet he gets all the girls.”
“Will he be all right?” I ask.
“Yeah, I think he’ll be all right.”
The Tortoise in You
Ileene Anderson isn’t so sure. Anderson is a diminutive blonde, a biologist, with a kind face who looks ready to go for a hike at a moment’s notice. She’s with the Center for Biological Diversity, a litigious conservation group that’s been successful in defending species rights by bringing the full force of the Endangered Species Act to bear. When we meet at a loud and grungy coffee shop in Hollywood, the closest thing to nature is nearby Runyon Canyon, known more for the fragrant aroma of dog shit than desert tortoises. Nonetheless, the fate of the tortoises has been part of the center’s and Anderson’s life for many years. The center was part of the coalition that turned back Fort Irwin’s expansion plans around the turn of the century. Now, the Army is expanding the base into the very areas most experts once thought removing tortoises from would be a bad idea.
Despite the Army’s congressional mandate to do so, Anderson says, some modest sleight of hand was still required to justify the expansion. “The reason they didn’t get a jeopardy biological opinion on essentially the same piece of land they’d gotten a jeopardy opinion on 10 years ago was because Fish and Wildlife Services evaluated the impact of that acreage based on the whole Mojave Desert population of desert tortoise and, of course, found that it wouldn’t kill all the tortoises,” says Anderson. “The environmental community was shocked and dismayed.”
And not just because common sense tells you it might not be the best idea to remove an animal population from a habitat where it has thrived and put it in another it is unfamiliar with. Besides that, Anderson says, not enough studies have been conducted to determine if the new site can host such a significant influx. There is also the threat of predation, human encroachment, development and, most troubling, the mixing of healthy translocated tortoises with a resident population that is suffering to some degree from contagious upper-respiratory-tract disease.
What a difference eight years, a couple of wars, an act of Congress and $75 million can make. Now, many environmentalists who previously opposed the effort are dining off the government cheese brought to the table by the tortoises.
“It is my opinion that when word got out that Fort Irwin had $75 million to spend on the tortoise, it was a gold rush,” says Anderson.
Or, as Michael Connor, California director of the Western Watersheds Project, a conservation group that opposes the translocation, put it when I spoke to him by phone, “Almost all of the desert-tortoise biologists are working for the government,and their job is to get the job done.”
To add to the ironies, Connor says the Army’s epic tortoise translocation is now the de facto funding source for the Bureau of Land Management’s long-in-the-making Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan. “The money became a linchpin to sort of finance the West Mojave Plan, which should have been financed anyway,” he tells me.
Of course, uprooting a rare, thriving population and moving it to lesser habitat wasn’t part of the plan. It’s just part of the Brazil-like absurdity inherent in that parallel universe out at Fort Irwin, where fake palm trees blow over in fake Iraqi towns with fake imams and fake mosque bells. Where the Army drops $57 million to build the largest urban training center in the world, and stones are flown in from Iraq to create our own American Fallujah. And where $75 million to remove some tortoises from the fringes of the Army's land is just the cost of doing business.
“I think they just saw an opportunity to expand their fiefdom,” says Anderson. “and, frankly, we’re seeing exactly the same thing happen with the Marine base out in Twentynine Palms. They are wanting to expand as well.”
If Fort Irwin manages to expand to the west as well, as seems likely. it will have China Lake Naval Weapons Center, often rumored to be facing retirement, flanking its south and west borders. “So,” Anderson says, “the notion always was that if Fort Irwin could surround it on two sides by expanding, they would probably be able to pick up that area for subsequent use.”
It’s quite a success story for a base that was all but on its ass in the not-too-distant past. It’s something less for the California desert tortoise, which has been in this desert pasture for a million years but is now under siege.