Environment & Science

Marines' plan to relocate desert tortoises lumbering slowly along

FILE - This Sept. 3, 2008 file photo shows an endangered desert tortoise, sitting in the middle of a road in the eastern Mojave Desert near Ivanpah, Calif.
FILE - This Sept. 3, 2008 file photo shows an endangered desert tortoise, sitting in the middle of a road in the eastern Mojave Desert near Ivanpah, Calif.
Reed Saxon/AP

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Officials with the Marine Corps at Twentynine Palms are taking a cue from the desert tortoise they are working with and slowing things down a bit. 

The military initially had hoped to airlift over 1,000 desert tortoises away from land they plan to use in training this spring. Now the Corps is saying that won't happen until the fall, at the earliest.

The military recently acquired 164,000 acres of land for training purposes near the Twentynine Palms base, but environmentalists worried this would harm the tortoises. So the Corps came up with a $50 million plan to use helicopters to move the shelled creatures someplace safer.

Still, many were worried the plan was too vague and that relocation would also endanger the animals. Now, the Marines are taking more time to work with federal agencies before moving forward.

In particular, the Corps is waiting for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve a relocation plan and to revise a report known as a "biological opinion."

According to FWS, that is a document that "states our opinion on whether the project is likely to jeopardize a listed species or destroy or adversely modify a listed species' critical habitat." Desert tortoises are currently listed as "threatened."

The Bureau of Land Management is also busy analyzing the land where the Marines hope to move the tortoises, to see what impact their relocation might have.

Marine deputy public affairs officer Lauren Kurkimilis told KPCC that the Corps will look over those documents and come up with a revised plan.

She said even if those plans are finalized over the summer, it would be too hot to move the animals at that time. Instead, the Corps will wait for the fall to make sure they induce the "least amount of stress on the animal."

When they are ready to take action, the Corps will hiring more than 100 contract biologists to help move the animals, Kurkimilis added.

Still, environmentalists like Ileene Anderson, a scientist with Center for Biological Diversity, are worried any move is bad for the sensitive tortoises.

"You pick them up and move them to a different area, they don't know this new area," she explained.

The disoriented tortoises will often try to head back to their old region, exposing them to predators, she noted. Others will struggle to find food and water or may get sick from the diseases carried by other tortoises in the new neighborhood.

Fort Irwin, also in the Mojave, tried a tortoise relocation years back to dismal results, Anderson said. In that instance, the rate of death was so high the military called off the move and instead altered their training to minimize drills that could harm the animals.

She hopes the Marine Corps at Twentynine Palms decides to take a similar approach.

"I think there is a happy medium to be found there."

In the meantime, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed an intent to sue the military over a perceived lack of transparency in the planning process for this move. The environmental group also claims that the Corps did not conduct the proper environmental analyses.

Even though the Corps is revisiting some of these issues, Anderson says her organization is going through with the legal motion in case other issues arise.

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated the tortoises may be moved in the fall or winter. However, winter would to cold to move the animals.