No place for a turtle

Posted on | August 5, 2013 | 2 Comments


Since the 1989 listing of the Mojave population of the desert tortoise under the Endangered Species Act, the animal has been protected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the tortoise’s habitat across the Mojave Desert falls on federal land. This should have made federal protection of a federally listed species easier. But, after a quarter century of protection, tortoise numbers have steadily fallen. How far and how irretrievably is by no means clear. The USFWS only began censusing the turtles in 2001.

Meanwhile the Mojave Desert has been steadily industrialized. Compare the top map showing key tortoise habitat areas in dark green and tan with lower ones demarcating roads, recreation areas, cities, military bases and renewable energy zones, and it is vivid that the Mojave Desert’s signature animal is steadily being extirpated from its home range.

Since the early 1990s, in cases where the USFWS couldn’t save the tortoise’s land, say the entire Las Vegas Valley, the agency started licensing developers to move the turtles. The process is called “translocation.” Whether this ten dollar term for moving an animal from where it lives to where we would prefer that it live is a way to save tortoises in the wild, or whether we are managing the desert tortoise into extinction, is something the UFWS has not measured. No long-term survival studies of translocated tortoises have been done. Colloquially, they will admit that thousands of tortoises moved during the Vegas boom have made a large scale translocation site near Jean, Nevada a great place to find dead tortoise shells. This hasn’t stopped translocation from becoming the USFWS’s de facto tortoise management policy. High Country News has the story and KPCC has an interview with reporter Emily Green.

For those of you without a High Country News subscription, use this story for a free trial, then please support the best environment report in the West.


2 Responses to “No place for a turtle”

  1. Barbara
    August 8th, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

    Loved your desert tortoise article in HCN. Especially loved Berry’s quote at the end, “I don’t allow myself to get depressed because it takes up time — and I don’t have that much left.”

    Sometimes the news seems so bad that it is hard to keep listening and working and so any tips on how to keep trying are cherished.

    Well done piece! Thanks, Emily.

  2. Rick B
    April 30th, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    Desert tortoises are some of the most vulnerable, and unfortunately don’t get the press they deserve (especially compared to their marine cousins). Thank you for throwing light onto their plight!

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