Desert Issues

Desert Survivors Issues Report, October 16, 2008



In 2001 the U.S. Army was permitted to expand its tank training base at Fort Irwin in the Mojave. Activists had been fighting the expansion since 1991, with harm to the desert tortoise as the main focus. Expansion was proposed for the southwest side of the base at Superior Valley, then for the east side when large tortoise populations in Superior Valley were discovered. In the late ‘90s the expansion came back to the southwest side and we lost the battle. In 2002 Desert Survivors conducted a “farewell trip” to Superior, which was now slated for tank warfare and ultimate demolition. It was a sad end to a heart-felt struggle.

In 2008, after six years of studying the tortoise, the Army began to move the animals out of the base to nearby lands near the Newberry and Rodman Mountains, southeast of Barstow. A high death rate was soon detected. This summer Desert Survivors joined the Center for Biological Diversity in an effort to mitigate the damage. The press release below announces progress in our lawsuit toward a possible good mitigation. We are hopeful. Movement of tortoise to a strange new place away from their homeland has been suspended. Our lawyers will be in negotiation on new protocols designed to limit the death and destruction.

What we really want of course is an end to the expansion into untrammeled desert lands altogether. Air power has largely relegated wide-scale tank warfare to the dust bin of history, though there are still some soldiers who would like to drive around in the desert freely without airplanes dropping bombs on them from above. Stopping the land transfer at this point would take more involvement than the U.S. public can muster, despite budget cuts now mandated to pay for the U.S. financial meltdown. Maybe the expansion will be delayed due to lack of money. Meanwhile, we’ll protect the tortoise as best we can.


Center for Biological Diversity
For Immediate Release, October 10, 2008

Disastrous Desert Tortoise Translocation Suspended

LOS ANGELES— Fort Irwin officials on Thursday suspended their disastrous desert tortoise translocation program, in response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors. The flawed translocation project, undertaken to remove tortoises from an area where the fort intends to expand its training areas, has so far sustained huge losses. More than 90 relocated and resident tortoises have perished, primarily killed by predators, and more losses are expected due to healthy tortoises being introduced into diseased populations — against the recommendations of epidemiologists.

The first phase of the translocation was begun in March 2008, when about 770 tortoises were moved from Fort Irwin to areas south of the installation that already had desert tortoise populations. Almost immediately, coyotes began killing both relocated and resident desert tortoises.

“We predicted that the translocation of tortoises from Fort Irwin’s expansion would be disastrous, and unfortunately, we were proven right.” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The loss of so many tortoises is certainly not helping this threatened population. The Army must minimize the death rate. If relocation really is necessary, it needs to be done much more carefully.”

The translocation effort and other threats are pushing the tortoise closer to extinction. In 2001 Congress authorized Fort Irwin to expand into some of the best desert tortoise habitat remaining in the western Mojave desert. As partial mitigation, the Army agreed to move a majority of the tortoises from the expansion area into other public lands it had purchased south of the post. But the new lands provide much lower-quality habitat, and have pockets of diseased tortoises and coyotes that are starving from lack of prey due to drought. Desert tortoise translocation has never been attempted on such a large scale as the Fort Irwin project. Even “successful” small-scale projects have had a more than 20 percent mortality rate.

Having survived tens of thousands of years in California’s deserts, desert tortoise numbers have declined precipitously in recent years. The crash of populations is due to numerous factors, including disease, crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, habitat degradation, and predation by dogs and ravens. Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise — California’s official state reptile — is now protected under both federal and California endangered species acts.

Population genetics studies recently have identified that the desert tortoise in the western Mojave desert, including the Fort Irwin tortoises, is distinctly different from its relatives to the north, east and south. This finding sheds new light on why increased conservation and translocation success is more important than ever for the Fort Irwin effort.

“This whole debacle needs to be significantly rethought,” Anderson said. “If translocation really needs to be done, the number of tortoises that will be moved should be reduced, and only healthy tortoises should be moved into healthy populations. Also, protection from predators is needed — and that should not include killing predators. And the relocation area should be made into a tortoise preserve, where there is a minimal number of roads, no off-road vehicles, no dumping, no mining, and strict enforcement of those restrictions.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 180,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.