Can we save Mojave desert tortoises by moving them out of harm’s way?

Feds aim to save threatened tortoises by relocating them away from development

  • A desert tortoise in Joshua Tree National Park, in California's Mojave Desert.

    David M. Barron/Oxygen Group
  • An adult desert tortoise crosses the center line of a road in the Mojave Desert.

    David Lamfrom
  • A male desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), covered with transmitters, near Palm Springs, California, where wind energy facilities are just one of the threats the species faces.

    Jeffrey Lovich, USGS
  • Kristin Berry, tracking desert tortoises in the Mojave last April. Her research helped inspire the reptile's listing as an endangered species.

    Emily Green
  • Marines wait for a desert tortoise to move off the road on the grounds of the U.S. Marine Corps' Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California.

    AP Photo/Reed Saxon
  • Roy Averill-Murray, who oversees desert tortoise recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, releases a desert tortoise at the Nevada National Security Site (the former Nevada Test Site) last September.

    AP Photo/Ronda Churchill, Las Vegas Review-Journal

Kristin Berry's khaki hat flaps in the wind as she bends to inspect the skeleton of a desert tortoise. Remnants of its head and neck are still attached to the carapace, and bleached bones protrude from it. It's been dead for about four years, she suspects, and "appears to have died in a relaxed position," she says, "with its legs out." That suggests starvation and dehydration, but the 70-year-old biologist can't be sure.

It's the second week of April, when wild tortoises typically emerge from hibernation to forage on the spring wildflowers that briefly brighten the Mojave Desert. Berry –– who does long-term research on the desert tortoise for the U.S. Geological Survey –– is the acknowledged authority on where the now-threatened reptiles once thrived.

The rock outcropping where she stands is not far from I-15, halfway between L.A. and Las Vegas. Basalt hills rise to the north and west, and a cavalcade of power lines runs south. To the east, ORV tracks surround a makeshift bull's-eye riddled with bullet holes and what remains of a desert tortoise burrow. An empty Coors can is lodged in the burrow's entrance.

The ex-tortoise next to Berry wasn't hatched here. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved it and about 600 others 40 miles from their native range near Barstow, Calif., when the Army's Fort Irwin was expanded in 2008. Berry has been tracking it, and 157 other displaced tortoises. So far, perhaps half of the relocated animals are still alive. Nobody knows if that is good, bad or typical, or if the decline will continue. Berry's study will pit her carefully accrued survival data against the increasingly popular idea that desert tortoises can be protected, not by diverting development, but by moving animals.

This process is called "translocation." Since the desert tortoise came under Endangered Species Act protection in 1989, translocation has become the default solution to conflicts between people and tortoises. Thousands of tortoises have been moved to make way for modern Las Vegas, and for other desert development projects. Now, thousands more may be dug up to fast-track industrial-scale solar and wind farms throughout the Mojave.

"It's an incredibly depressing, sad story," says Defenders of Wildlife lawyer Mike Senatore. "I think the approach is basically, 'We can't say no to anything. We have to allow renewable energy projects to go where they shouldn't go. We have to allow off-road vehicles. We have to allow military expansion and housing. So we either pave over tortoises that are there, or we go out and pick up the ones we can find.' "

Increasingly, the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that it's moving a lot of turtles and needs to do more to ensure they survive. The agency's Desert Tortoise Recovery Office coordinator, a 45-year-old biologist out of Arizona named Roy Averill-Murray, and his supporters believe translocation can become a pillar of conservation, not just as a way to protect tortoises from development, but also as a way to boost populations. A long history of disturbances, from grazing to off-road vehicles to invasive plants, is steadily extirpating the species, even in places that haven't been swallowed by housing or other projects.

Berry is well aware of the translocation push -- and dismayed by it. Her research helped inspire the reptile's original Endangered Species Act listing, and she wrote much of a now-discarded 1994 recovery plan that emphasized preserving habitat and considered moving the animals a tool of last resort, noting that it may prove useful "once translocation techniques have been perfected."

In 2004, the Fish and Wildlife Service brought in Averill-Murray and a new team to rewrite the 1994 plan. The revised plan, released in 2011, sees translocation as central to recovery, pointing out that recent efforts have been more successful than earlier attempts. No longer are animals just dropped in the desert; researchers often put up temporary fencing to keep tortoises from going back home, and dig new dens with the same orientation as the old ones –– even sprinkling them with sand and feces from their former homes.

The 2011 plan also requires the creation of new guidelines and protocols for translocation. Averill-Murray is now working with biologists from the San Diego Zoo to improve the handling and resettlement of animals displaced by development. The agency also plans to start repopulating public land near Las Vegas, using unwanted pets dropped off at a facility originally meant to house displaced wild tortoises.

But Berry remains skeptical. There are too many unanswered questions, she says. Will local population genetics get muddied? What about the animals' strong homing instincts and the impacts on resident tortoises? Last year, Berry and other independent scientists prepared a report for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a state and federal plan to develop solar power while protecting wildlife. It concluded: "In general, moving organisms from one area to another ... is not a successful conservation action and may do more harm than good to conserved populations by spreading diseases … increasing mortality, and decreasing reproduction and genetic diversity."

Scientists generally agree that translocation has negative consequences for wildlife, especially animals as intimately tied to their homes as tortoises. "They know where every little water catchment is," says Brian K. Sullivan, an Arizona State University professor who specializes in herpetology. "They'll travel hundreds of meters to reach them when it rains. And they have strong social structures. No wonder they're traumatized when we wrench them out of their landscape and drop them somewhere else."

Julie Alpert
Julie Alpert Subscriber
Aug 09, 2013 02:15 PM
This is a very well written and researched article. Thank you HCN for putting this issue on the front page and on the forefront our thoughts. I started my tortoise career in 1990 at the Nevada Test Site for the Yucca Mtn. Project and remember a discussion and concerted effort at looking for a proper translocation site for tortoise. We searched a lot of habitat, to include a portion of Death Valley and found nothing that seemed appropriate - either habitat wise or there were burrows but no tortoises and that lead to the question why they weren't there and in the end would it still be a good idea to move animals there. That was 1990. In 1994 I met my husband while conducting a desert tortoise survey in the Ward Valley area (another area on the list for a disposal site of high level nuclear waste). In the spring of 2000 and 2001 my husband and I were most priveledged and honored to have worked for and with Dr. Berry on her various study plots, to include the Desert Tortoise Conservation (Natural) Area. She accompanied us on our survey transect in 2001 for the Fort Irwin expansion area. She was wearing her "tortoise shell" brace from the accident and it was all we could do to keep up with her! We reached the top of a desert mountain and layed on the pavement, consumed by heat and humidity and talked about life. It was an ethereal moment my husband and I will never forget. On our decent down the east side we found a sick tortoise and my husband, with many years of human medical background, had a vigorous discusion with Dr. Berry about disease transmission and the mycoplasma bacteria. Having moved from public sector work into the biological consulting field in 1996 and now looking back on those years it is apparent to me that there is a missing link to this story in HCN. That is of the influence that money and greed play into the consulting portion of desert tortoise biology, monitoring, surveying, and conservation. There are many companies, small and large, that make a substantial living off of this one animal. Right or wrong this feeds the push for a greedy and self-serving consultant market. There is a lot of competition, ego, and back-stabbing and often this translates to a clear lack of concern, empathy, and regard for the Endangered Species Act under Section 10 and the overall goal of conserving this "threatened" species. This lack of consultant based concern and regard for the tortoise in and of itself has been very disconcerting for my husband and I to witness over these many years. There are those out there that DO care about the tortoise and I encourage them to keep up the good work, keep the communication lines flowing, and above all the sharing of data with both USFWS and USGS.
Dennis Willis
Dennis Willis Subscriber
Aug 09, 2013 09:27 PM
This has been our approach for too long. The bighorn sheep can lamb some place else, we need this canyon for a coal mine. Why do the Indians need to be here? Move them to a reservation. Oil is where you find it but the same is true for wildlife and indigenous people. Relocation too often is a salve for the conscience. We feel better we did not kill them outright. They starve or are otherwise killed out of sight and out of mind while we enjoy taking their resources.
Geraldine Ahrens
Geraldine Ahrens
Aug 12, 2013 04:14 PM
I live in southern Nevada and each year there are/were three tortoises that wander through my property, on their way to, somewhere. This year, only one has appeared. It leaves me wondering if the main transmission line that has been been installed about half mile or so from my place, found and 'translocated' the other two tortoises. I can only hope the missing two tortoises survive happily, somewhere.
Asif Ahmed
Asif Ahmed
Aug 26, 2013 12:27 PM[…]/ This is also very disturbing.
Jessica Hall
Jessica Hall
Aug 28, 2013 08:36 PM
Excellent, if sad, reporting. I just read an AP story on Reader Supported News that says the rescue center for tortoises is closing, and the researchers there will likely euthanize the tortoises there. Absolutely heartbreaking.
Myles Traphagen
Myles Traphagen
Sep 03, 2013 12:59 AM
The closing of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Clark County Nevada is a poster child example of the shell game known as Habitat Conservation Plans and "mitigation" in general. Las Vegas was allowed build itself into a mega billion dollar iconic global industry by paying out $550 per tortoise translocated to the DTCC. Nearly 15,000 tortoises were brought the Center. After the massive dump of over 9,000 tortoises to the site mentioned in this article near Jean, NV, Clark County is now washing its hands of the tortoise and the mitigation program. Nobody can even say with any statistical accuracy how many of those tortoises survived. Las Vegas got what it wanted, and the tortoises were made to fend for themselves in marginal habitat. HCPs are a scam. Developers and municipalities need to have their feet held to desert pavement for these travesties. Note: Substitute the words "Native American" for desert tortoise in this comment and you can see how history does repeat itself across all taxa.