Last spring I witnessed one of the strangest military operations one could imagine — the largest tortoise airlift in history. The tortoise transport was part of a long, fought-over expansion of the sprawling Army training grounds about 30 miles north and east of Barstow. More than 670 tortoises were relocated, some by truck and many by helicopter, from the southern fringes of Fort Irwin to a new location on lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
The relocation of the endangered California desert tortoise seemed to usher in the final chapter of a 20-year battle between the tanks of Fort Irwin and the ancient species over lands that both Army and tortoise advocates regarded as essential to their conflicting interests. The Army has long held that it needed the expansion of Fort Irwin — a mind-boggling military-industrial Xanadu where Iraq is being recreated brick by brick, where pretend mosques get blown up on Wednesdays and where local Barstow residents are put to work playing pretend Shiites and Shias — to train effectively for modern desert warfare. Environmentalists said the Mojave population of desert tortoises would be seriously jeopardized by uprooting so many tortoises from one of their few thriving habitats. After much back and forth, and some would say a post-9/11 politicization of the process, the Department of the Interior finally agreed to the Army’s plans.
On a windy and hot spring day, I watched as a team of biologists placed the preternaturally anthropomorphic animals — they give the impression of being the desert’s dignified elder statesmen — under creosote bushes or in prefab burrows. As soon as they were able, most of the animals immediately headed back home, now miles across an unforgiving and potentially dangerous landscape. If they survived the trek, the relocated tortoises would eventually find themselves fenced off from their old habitat. At the time, I joked, sort of, that the fence could end up being a desert-tortoise Wounded Knee. Some of the biologists working in the field laughed nervously along with me.
As it turns out, the analogy wasn’t far off. Since the relocation, many tortoises have perished either trying to get back home or attempting to make it in a new, unfamiliar habitat. Drought-deprived coyotes are being blamed for many of the losses, which have rapidly approached the acceptable mortality rate of 136 tortoises. The initial relocation was to be the first of three phases to accommodate Fort Irwin’s planned expansion, which was to continue to the west and east. In light of the carnage, those plans have been shelved indefinitely. One guesses the impact on our national security will be minimal. The lasting impact on one of the few thriving desert tortoise populations in the Mojave Desert remains to be seen.
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From “The Tortoise and the Tank” by Joe Donnelly
A red helicopter appears over a patch of mountains, ferrying a payload of tortoises. It circles around and then lands in a flat area just above the wash where we are standing. Out of the helicopter emerge 14 tortoises, Dr. Paula Kahn, charged with placing this crew, and a burly pilot straight out of central casting. It’s critical to get the tortoises out of their crates and under a creosote bush or into a burrow before it gets too hot.
I decide I can’t stand around and watch, and pitch in to help Dr. Kahn and the pilot release the crate-bound passengers. Each tortoise is measured, weighed, checked for signs of upper-respiratory disease and placed — rather crudely, it seems — under a creosote bush and left to its fate. Ever the optimist, [our military handler John] Wagstaffe opines that the tortoises must have enjoyed their helicopter ride because they don’t appear to have shit or pissed themselves, which could dehydrate them and also attract predators.
I ask Dr. Kahn for her take on our friends’ future here.“ They are really, really bright animals, but you have to remember, some of these tortoises — we’re taking them out of a home in which they’ve lived for 40, 50, 60 years. It’s the only thing they know and we’re going to take them here and say, ‘Okay, new place, different plants, everything’s in a new location ... so it’s going to take them some time.”