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But even with these survival characteristics, their existence is in jeopardy. In some areas of the Mojave, where populations have been studied closely, they’ve declined by up to 90 percent. A major culprit in these study areas has been a contagious upper-respiratory disease. All sorts of factors, though, have contributed to the tortoises’ general fall: livestock grazing, which depletes the food supply; development, which attracts ravens that prey on tortoise eggs; off-road vehicles, which damage burrows or even crush the tortoises; and predation from coyotes, Gila monsters, foxes and other animals.
The decline in desert-tortoise populations, especially in the Western Mojave — near total in some areas where the tortoise had been common as recently as the 1970s — led to the species’ being listed as endangered in 1989. That status was changed to “threatened” the following year. This listing happened to coincide with the Gulf War (the one managed by Wagstaffe’s favorite Volvo mechanic), and threw a roadblock in front of Fort Irwin’s increasingly urgent expansion hopes. The land on the fringes of Fort Irwin is one of the few places where the tortoise population has done well, largely because the area is remote and closed off to many of the aforementioned threats.
When the expansion idea started to gather steam, negotiations began between the Army and the Bureau of Land Management — which has jurisdiction over much of the Mojave lands, and is charged with making sure Fort Irwin’s development complies with tortoise-conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1991, the Army came up with what was called the Modified Coyote Basin Alternative, a proposed 328,660-acre annexation primarily to the south, southwest and southeast of the fort’s boundaries. This plan was stymied when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ultimate arbiter of species management, said in a draft biological opinion on the plan (one that was never finalized) that the expansion would threaten the tortoises’ existence.
The Army came back with a new proposal, called the Silurian Valley Alternative, which would have directed expansion further to Fort Irwin’s north, east and southern boundaries, in desert lands closer to Baker than Barstow. Fish and Wildlife got onboard for this plan, in part, because it was well-removed from Superior Valley, which on a map looks like the final piece of a puzzle that would connect Fort Irwin along its southwest border with China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Superior Valley is one of the rare places in the Western Mojave where tortoises thrive, and this plan would leave it unmolested. But the Army subsequently decided the terrain wasn’t suitable, some say because of well-trafficked roads in and out of Baker.
Meanwhile, plans mandated by the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws to protect the tortoises were being drawn up. In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the Desert Tortoise (Mojave Population) Recovery Plan, which recommended six critical habitat areas, known as recovery units. The Western Mojave Recovery Unit is one of them. Within that recovery unit, several Desert Wildlife Management Areas (DWMAs) were proposed, among them a vast swath of desert labeled the Superior-Cronese Desert Management Area and the Superior-Cronese Critical Habitat Unit. The land is considered the most threatened tortoise habitat in the Western Mojave. It includes much of the land Fort Irwin occupies and desires, including Superior Valley.
The tortoise and the tank were in a standoff. In 1999, Congress intervened, asking relevant parties — the BLM, Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey, the California Department of Fish and Game and a variety of experts — including Dr. Kristin Berry, America’s foremost tortoise researcher, to convene the Desert Tortoise Panel and come to some kind of agreement. The Army proposed the Modified Southern Alternative, which to some bore a striking, though scaled-back, resemblance to the Army’s failed original plan. The panel rejected the proposal as it stood, but did come up with a $400 million plan to offset the expansion’s effects. Much of the money would go toward buying up private lands to create tortoise reserves. Dr. Berry, California Fish and Game and Ray Bransfield, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s main tortoise guy, didn’t even endorse the panel’s improved plan, saying it provided no scientific rationale as to how it would safeguard the tortoises. After that, it seemed that only an act of God would get Fort Irwin its land.
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.