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Know the West

The ever-shrinking West


When the Endangered Species Act passed 40 years ago, I was a nerdy 13-year-old who subscribed to Audubon magazine. In my suburban Midwestern bedroom, I devoured pictures and stories of species that had gone extinct or were headed that way -- the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and my favorite, the mighty ivory-billed woodpecker.

What had it been like to see vast flocks of pigeons darken the skies for hours, or hear the woodpecker's drumroll echoing through the swampy bottomlands? The stories raised disturbing questions in my youthful brain: Will human beings inevitably overrun the rest of the planet, dooming the other creatures that live on it?

The West, which I first visited a few years later, gave me hope. Our country still had a vast, wild region where native species thrived, and where we had intentionally set aside land for them to live. And some landscapes were so inhospitable that it was hard to imagine they would ever be exploited.

But I was naive: The West was not as wild as I thought, nor the Endangered Species Act as strong. Though the law enabled the comeback of the grizzly bear, the gray wolf and a handful of others, most species have declined even as our national parks and wilderness areas have expanded. That includes, as Emily Green writes in this issue's cover story, the desert tortoise, the slow-moving, flower-eating denizen of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, which has seen its numbers drop dramatically over the past several decades despite being listed as protected in 1989.

The tortoise faces numerous threats, including respiratory disease and the wheels of motorized vehicles, but the biggest one is habitat loss. As military bases expand and large-scale solar and wind farms move into the desert, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has adopted a strategy of grab-and-go, collecting tortoises in the path of bulldozers and translocating them elsewhere. But, as Green discovers, tortoises fare poorly when moved. They are easily stressed and have a strong instinct to return to their home territory. And mortality rates appear to be high.

Like the Army Corps of Engineers in the Northwest, which has steadfastly collected and barged endangered salmon around dams despite decades of declining fish numbers, the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to believe it can make translocation work. That makes political sense, given the Obama administration's emphasis on solar projects as a way to combat climate change. But it is unsteady ground on which to build a healthy population.

The tortoise is a survivor, though, and it has a way to help its own cause: It is a vigorous reproducer in captivity. We may never have to see the last tortoise sitting stoically in a terrarium, like Martha, the last passenger pigeon on earth, who expired in a cage in 1914. But our wild deserts won't be the same without one of their keystones: wild tortoises.