Wildlife caretakers at a desert tortoise sanctuary near Las Vegas may soon be euthanizing hundreds of tortoises. Lacking funding, the center is closing down, and around half of the 1,400 animals housed at the center, the Associated Press reports, are “not suitable for release, either infected with disease or otherwise too feeble to survive.”
The tortoises are listed as “vulnerable,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and their persnickety behaviors—trekking back to their burrows after being removed from harm’s way, peeing themselves into dehydration if they’re picked up —don’t help prospects for their recovery in the region, the AP points out.
No more than 100,000 tortoises are thought to survive in the habitat where millions once burrowed across parts of Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada.
The animals were once so abundant that tourists would scoop them up as souvenirs. Many quickly realized the shy grass-eaters don’t make ideal pets. (For one thing, they can live for 100 years.) And once the species was classified as threatened on the endangered species list, people rushed to give them back.
The Las Vegas sanctuary, the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, was originally set up to protect the tortoises as housing developers encroached on their habitat. This Department of the Interior report, on moving the tortoises, details the center’s history:
The DTCC was originally constructed in 1990 under a settlement agreement between the U. S. Justice Department and the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association, City of Las Vegas, and State of Nevada to provide a facility to conduct desert tortoise research and hold displaced desert tortoises. The DTCC was operated by Southern Nevada Environmental Inc. (SNEI) until 2008, followed by the Great Basin Institute from 2008 – 2009. In 2009 the San Diego Zoo (SDZ) assumed operations through an agreement with FWS. The SDZ receives, on average, 1,000 tortoises each year from the public in addition to the current occupancy of about 2,700.
If housing development spurred the center’s creation, the housing bubble helped created this new situation. The Bureau of Land Management funded the center through mandatory fees housing developers who build on turtle habitat had to pay, the AP reports.
As the housing boom swept through southern Nevada in the 2000s, the tortoise budget swelled. But when the recession hit, the housing market contracted, and the bureau and its local government partners began struggling to meet the center’s $1 million annual budget.
Housing never fully recovered, and the federal mitigation fee that developers pay has brought in just $290,000 during the past 11 months. Local partners, which collect their own tortoise fees, have pulled out of the project.
In the autumn, the center expects to begin euthanizing any new animals that arrive at its doors, and it will likely close by the end of 2014.
More from Smithsonian.com: