Scientists have begun moving the Mojave Desert's flagship species, the desert tortoise, to make room for tank training at the Army's Fort Irwin despite protests by some conservationists.
The controversial project, billed as the largest desert tortoise move in California history, involves transferring 770 endangered reptiles from Army land to a dozen public plots overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Fort Irwin has sought to expand its 643,000-acre training site into tortoise territory for two decades. The Army said it needs an extra 131,000 acres to accommodate faster tanks and longer-range weapons used each month to train some 4,000 troops.
Desert tortoises are the longest-living reptiles in the Southwest with a potential life span of 100 years and can weigh up to 15 pounds. Their population has been threatened in recent years by urbanization, disease and predators including the raven.
Weeks before the relocation, two conservation groups threatened to sue Fort Irwin. The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors contend that the land set aside for the desert tortoises is too close to an interstate highway and is plagued with off-road vehicles and illegal dumping that would disturb the animals.
The groups served Fort Irwin with a 60-day notice of intent to sue and plan to file the lawsuit after the desert tortoises have been moved.
"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done to make the relocation site more habitable ... so the animals would survive better there," said Ileene Anderson, a staff biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Fort Irwin lawyers and federal wildlife officials determined the claims were unfounded and decided to go ahead with the $8.5 million project. The process began last weekend and will last two weeks. The tortoises, including about 67 babies, are being moved into habitats approved by the U.S. Geological Survey and other experts.
"The translocation of tortoises is a very complex process," Fort Irwin spokesman John Wagstaffe said in a recent interview. "You have to move them gently and make sure they don't get stressed during the move."
About a year before the transfer, biologists tagged desert tortoises living in the proposed training expansion area with radio transmitters and took blood tests to make sure they were healthy.
Scientists have a short window to relocate the animals, which recently awakened from winter hibernation and will return to their burrows in the summer.
Last weekend, a group equipped with receivers scanned the desert for signs of the tagged tortoises, placed them in plastic containers and hauled them to their new home. They were given water and released.
Scientists will continue to monitor the relocated tortoises for signs of stress.
Research studies show relocated tortoises typically spend the first year roaming. Over time, they settle down and survive as well as tortoises that stayed put, said Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno, Nev.
"We're plopping them down in a new area that they're not familiar with so they spend the first year or so learning their surroundings and where the good burrow sites are," Averill-Murray said Thursday.
Averill-Murray helped plan the Fort Irwin project, but is not involved in the actual move.