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The 20-year battle between the tanks of Fort Irwin and the desert tortoises of the Mojave Desert has taken another dramatic twist. Last week, the Army announced it was suspending plans to move any more California desert tortoises from lands on the southern and western borders of its huge military training facility at Fort Irwin, about 30 miles northeast of Barstow, California, after the endangered species suffered high mortalities in the initial phase of the translocation. [See Joe Donnelly’s August 22 cover story, “The Tortoise and the Tank,” at laweekly.com.]
Last March, the Army started airlifting 670 tortoises from Fort Irwin’s southern border, in the first phase of a long-fought-for expansion of its borders to the south and west. For decades, the Army has argued that Fort Irwin, the largest force-on-force military training facility in the world, needs the land to continue effective training. It’s where the lion’s share of our troops prepare for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The main stumbling block to expansion has been the resident population of the California desert tortoise, protected under the Endangered Species Act. An agreement with the Department of the Interior was finally reached in which the Army would oversee translocation of the tortoises off military lands and into surrounding areas. All told, more than 2,000 endangered tortoises were scheduled for removal from lands on which they had thrived for decades.
But the first phase of the project hasn’t gone well. According to several sources, more than 90 tortoises have died in the initial relocation. The Army’s plans factored in losses of up to 136 tortoises over the course of phase one. With the mortality rate already approaching that number, the Army has had little choice but to hold off on further relocations.
“We were afraid that this would happen. We weren’t at all confident that it would work and, sadly, we’ve been proven right,” says Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed a lawsuit to halt the program. “It’s a good thing they’re taking a second look at this because it’s been a disaster beyond even what we’ve anticipated. We didn’t expect them to lose 90 tortoises in this short of a time.”
Military spokesperson John Wagstaffe said the decision to suspend the operation is not a result of the lawsuit but rather the Army’s concern for the welfare of the species. “The Army has spent a great deal of time, money and effort on the tortoises,” says Wagstaffe. “We care about the tortoises. We’ve been working on this since 1988.”
Wagstaffe says that while the Army works with the Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate which tortoises have died and why, monitoring of both relocated tortoises and resident tortoises will continue. Coyote predation seems to be the main culprit. Most parties agree that drought-challenged coyotes, whose main staple of rabbits and rodents is scarce, have taken to preying on the slow-moving tortoises. The relocated tortoises, which tend to wander off for great stretches in search of their original homes, have likely been easy pickings.
“That’s a big part of the reason behind it,” says Dr. William Boarman, one of the lead biologists on the relocation project. Suspending the project, says Boarman, “gives us a chance to stop and re-evaluate what’s the best approach to take from here on out.”
It’s unclear whether or not this puts an end to the long territorial fight between the tanks of Fort Irwin and the desert tortoises.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” says Wagstaffe. “I believe there’s a specific take number, and if we’re getting close to that, that would certainly be a factor.”