The Marine Corps Plans to Airlift Over 1,000 Desert Tortoises

Despite the positive intentions behind relocation, conservationists worry that it will hurt the tortoises more than it helps

desert tortoise
Scott Smith/Corbis

The United States Marine Corps is planning a major rescue operation, but it’s not to save people. Starting this month, 1185 desert tortoises will be airlifted away from their natural habitat in the Mojave Desert to allow the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms to expand. But while the relocation is intended to keep the tortoises from death by military equipment, some critics fear that it could do more harm than good.

The Marine Corps acquired about 165 square miles to expand the base under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014, but much of that lies in prime tortoise habitat. To mitigate the expansion’s environmental impact, the Marine Corps is staging a $50 million effort to relocate the threatened tortoises to other parts of the Mojave Desert.

But while moving the tortoises away from large-scale military exercises might seem like a good idea, similar past efforts have not gone as planned. To top it off, the Mojave Desert’s tortoises have not fared well in recent decades—with a combination of drought, loss of habitat, and disease plaguing local populations. A recent survey of the tortoises by federal biologists noted that the number of breeding adults has dropped by 50 percent over the last decade, Louis Sahagun reports for The L.A. Times.

“I wish the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would get some backbone and say it can't permit another tortoise translocation by the military,” biologist Glenn Stewart, also a director on the board of the Desert Tortoise Council conservation group, tells Sahagun. “The situation makes us feel like we'll have to write off California's Mojave population.”

In March 2008, the U.S. Army tried to relocate 670 tortoises from the National Training Center near Barstow, California, but canceled the $8.6-million project after less than a year when they found that nearly 100 of the tortoises died after removal. Serious drought in the region during the translocation drove local coyotes to hunt tortoises instead of their usual diet of rodents and rabbits.

The relocation also disrupted the tortoises’ social networks and systems of trails and burrows dug into their original habitats, Sahagun reports. The stress of being handled by humans coupled with being placed in unfamiliar territory can also leave the tortoises vulnerable to disease and predators.

However, the Marine Corps argues that it has learned from past mistakes with relocation and is handling the project according to standards set by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service. As The Desert Sun’s Denise Goolsby reports, the tortoises will be moved in small groups over the course of four to six weeks, after which they will be monitored by biologists for the next 30 years.

“Our scientists have extensively studied the behavior of this specific group of tortoises in order to identify and keep intact their social structures and topographic preferences once they arrive at the pre-selected recipient sites," base spokesperson Captain Justin Smith tells Goolsby.

Another 235 desert tortoises being raised at the base will also be relocated once they have grown strong enough to be released. But with tortoise populations steadily declining, conservationists still worry that despite the best of intentions, the Marine Corps’ efforts might just add to the tortoise’s struggles.

“[Relocation] is not a conservation strategy or a means of helping tortoise populations grow,” wildlife scientist William Boarman tells Sahagun. “It is simply a way of moving them out of harm's way.”

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