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Environmentalists Challenging Marines' Plan to Relocate Tortoises

  • Combat Center Chief of Staff Col. James F. Harp sets No. 2-4, a desert tortoise hatched nine years ago at the Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, next to a burrow that biologists dug for her Sept. 30, 2015. Kelly O'Sullivan/Marine Corps
    Combat Center Chief of Staff Col. James F. Harp sets No. 2-4, a desert tortoise hatched nine years ago at the Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, next to a burrow that biologists dug for her Sept. 30, 2015. Kelly O'Sullivan/Marine Corps
  • A 3-year-old desert tortoise rests in a visitor's gloved hands Sept. 30, 2015, at the Combat Center's Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site. Kelly O'Sullivan/Marine Corps
    A 3-year-old desert tortoise rests in a visitor's gloved hands Sept. 30, 2015, at the Combat Center's Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site. Kelly O'Sullivan/Marine Corps

TWENTYNINE PALMS -- Environmentalists are legally challenging plans to relocate 1,100 federally protected desert tortoises to accommodate expansion of U.S. Marine Corps activities.

The relocation at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, if carried out, would be the largest ever attempted, said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed notice Tuesday about its challenge.

"The proposed translocation is a disaster for the already at-risk desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert," Anderson said.

This population has already declined by 50 percent in the past 10 years, Anderson said.

"If the past is any guide, up to half of the tortoises won't survive this relocation, pushing these tortoises in the west Mojave closer to extinction," Anderson said.

Questions about the proposed tortoise relocation posed to Marine Base Twentynine Palms and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management went unanswered Tuesday afternoon.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

"We did complete a consultation with the U.S. Marine Corps regarding expansion of training," said Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for the wildlife service.

"That consultation was completed in 2012 and a biological opinion was issued on July 17, 2012 . We are currently working with the Marine Corps to complete a revised biological opinion," she said in a written response to a reporter's question.

The expanded training area proposed for use by the Marine Corps is not designated as critical habitat for the desert tortoise. Translocated tortoises from the proposed expanded training area will be placed into a low-density tortoise area to augment the population, she said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working closely with the Marine Corps and Bureau of Land Management while it completes the revised biological opinion, Hendron said.

Anderson said according to chatter she gleaned from several Internet sources, it appeared that the tortoise transfer was going to begin at the end of this month -- without public notice.

In 2009, the U.S. Army stopped a large desert tortoise relocation at Fort Irwin because of massive tortoise deaths.

One of the problems in relocating tortoises is that they unable to find shelter in unfamiliar territory. Many are eaten by predators as a result, Anderson said.

The letter sent to Marine Maj. Gen Lewis A. Craparotta, commanding general of the Twentynine Palms base, and other federal officials provided 60 days' notice that both the BLM and Marines have "failed to ensure against jeopardy" in plans for the proposed translocation of desert tortoise.

If corrective actions are not taken, then the environmental group will ask the federal courts to intervene by stopping the translocation, the notice says.

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