A timeline of the desert tortoise’s slow and steady decline

  • The Bureau of Land Management established a 40-square-mile Desert Tortoise Natural Area in Kern County, Calif. In 1976.

    Joseph Voves/cc via Flickr
  • The Barstow to Vegas race, c. 1976. In its heyday, 3,000 riders would tear across 150 miles of prime desert tortoise territory. It was discontinued after the 1989 listing of the desert tortoise.

    USGS, Howard Wilshire
  • A tortoise tries for an escape at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center near Las Vegas.

    AP Photo/Jessica Ebelhar, Las Vegas Review-Journal
  • Fort Irwin moved 571 desert tortoises to 13 sites in 2008.

    Neal Snyder/U.S. Army Environmental Command
  • Fish and Wildlife and the San Diego Zoo experimentally translocated juvenile tortoises from the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center to the former Nevada Test Site in 2011.

    Courtesy San Diego Zoo
 

Because the desert tortoise's Mojave range is largely on federal land, conservationists believe the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) should have better managed the animal's recovery once it was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1989. Instead, the species has steadily declined.

1976 Bureau of Land Management establishes 40-square-mile Desert Tortoise Natural Area in Kern County, Calif.

1980 Beaver Dam Slope colony of desert tortoises near St. George, Utah, listed as "threatened" with 26 square miles designated "critical habitat."

1984 BLM tortoise biologist Kristin Berry releases a report showing an up to 90 percent decline in tortoise numbers across the Mojave in the last century. Causes include military bases, housing, roads, off-road vehicles, predators, fire, invasive plants, guns and pet collection.

1989 Fish and Wildlife lists the species as "endangered" after an outbreak of upper respiratory tract disease, caused by a Mycoplasma bacterium, kills more than 600 animals at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area in Kern County.

1990 Entire Mojave population is listed as "threatened." "Incidental take" permits are granted to Clark County, Nev. developers in exchange for mitigation funding through a habitat conservation plan and creation of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a 222-acre Las Vegas holding facility for displaced tortoises.

1991 USFWS opposes expansion of Fort Irwin National Training Center near Barstow, Calif., due to habitat incursion.

1994 USFWS designates 6.4 million acres in Mojave Desert as "critical habitat" for tortoise: 4,750,000 acres in California, 1,220,000 in Nevada, 339,000 in Arizona and 129,000 in Utah, but most types of development are not prohibited. It also releases a recovery plan that discourages relocating tortoises and urges protecting areas throughout the Mojave to preserve genetic diversity.

1996 26,000 BLM acres near the California border are designated as the "Large Scale Translocation Site" for Las Vegas' Desert Tortoise Conservation Center to begin releasing displaced tortoises.

2001 Congress authorizes Fort Irwin's expansion into 87,000 acres of critical habitat.

2003 Fish and Wildlife's 1994 recovery plan is reviewed and scientists who promote translocation and downplay danger of disease are charged with drafting a new plan.

California produces three habitat conservation plans that include 12 million acres in the Mojave to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

2005 The Federal Energy Policy Act calls for 10,000 megawatts of solar, geothermal and wind energy generation on public lands, including much of the Mojave, by 2015.

2008 Fort Irwin moves 571 desert tortoises to 13 sites. California's habitat conservation plans are superseded by a new "Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan."

2009 Fish and Wildlife asks the San Diego Zoo to help clean up over-crowding at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, with plans to release all of its animals if it's closed.

The desert tortoise species Gopherus agassizii is split into two species. Tortoises east of the Colorado River are now designated Gopherus morafkai. This concentrates 70 percent of the federally protected species, Gopherus agassizii, west of the Colorado in California, where the greatest declines are reported.

2011 Fish and Wildlife and the San Diego Zoo experimentally translocate juvenile tortoises from the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center to the former Nevada Test Site; survival rates will be monitored.

2012 BLM field offices in California circulate the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. Fish and Wildlife's Desert Tortoise Recovery Office joins San Diego Zoo in starting to translocate adult tortoises onto BLM land near Las Vegas, anticipating the Center's closure in 2014 but promising to monitor recovery for the next five years. Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey's follow-up study of 158 tortoises relocated from Fort Irwin in 2008 shows a five-year survival rate of less than 50 percent.

Return to:

Can we save Mojave desert tortoises by moving them out of harm’s way?
High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -