The Press Enterprise, by David Danelski, Feb. 8, 2017.
Plans by the Marine Corps to move as many as 1,500 desert tortoises from a Twentynine Palms training base expansion area have cleared a major hurdle.
Federal wildlife officials based in Palm Springs have completed an analysis that found that moving the reptiles, which are listed as threatened with extinction, wouldn’t jeopardize the survival of the species.
The finding puts the Marines on track to move the tortoises out of the Johnson Valley this spring so they can use the land for live-ammunition training missions with tanks and ground troops. Congress in 2013 added some 88,000 acres of the valley area to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.
Tortoises have been moved from military and solar development sites in the past, but the Twentynine Palms endeavor would be the largest such move ever in the Mojave Desert, say wildlife officials.
Biologists plan to capture the animals and transport them by helicopters to Bureau of Land Management areas outside the combat center’s new boundaries. Most of the tortoises already have had radio transmitters affixed to their shells so they can be more easily located.
The move still needs final sign-offs from the Navy and Interior Department officials.
Marine Corps officials at Twentynine Palms plan to brief Navy Secretariat staff members on the environmental studies, said 1st Lt. Karen Holliday, a base spokeswoman, in an email.
“A decision from the Navy on the project could be as early as late this week,” her email said.
The timing of the approval is important because tortoises spend the cold winter and hot summer months in underground burrows. It is best to move them when they are active and above the ground in the spring or fall. In the spring, it’s generally best to move tortoises between late March and early May, wildlife experts say.
The move is opposed by environmentalists, who say the imperiled reptiles can’t afford to lose more of their natural range.
“It is going to be a direct hit on the limited amount of habitat the desert tortoise has left at a time when their numbers are declining,” said Ileene Anderson, a wildlife biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
But military officials have said the use of Johnson Valley for training exercises will enhance national security by expanding the reach of large-scale, live-ammunition operations. Such missions involve three battalions operating in extreme desert heat in real-world warfare conditions
The analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called a biological opinion, is an essential step before the relocation effort may start.
It found that the moved tortoises are expected to survive at the same rates as those that are not moved, said Brian Croft, a biologist and chief of the wildlife service’s West Mojave Desert Division and an author of the analysis.
Croft added that the BLM land that will receive the tortoises should have enough food resources for the newcomers as well as the tortoises already living in those areas.
“We looked for places where the population densities were already low,” he said.g
One potential problem is that the relocated tortoises may be more vulnerable to coyotes.
The military plans to shoot coyotes if such predation becomes excessive, but they hope such measures are not necessary, Croft said. Coyotes can be legally hunted in California all year long.