Tortoises battle it out with Marines for the right to stay put
TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. - Soldiers at a Marine base in the state of California have many rules. Some of them are about the critters at the base, especially the desert tortoises.
A desert tortoise is a kind of turtle that lives in the hot, sandy desert. It has a tall, green to dark brown shell. Its front legs have sharp scales and are flattened for digging, and its back legs are long and skinny. A grown tortoise can reach six inches in height and weigh up to 15 pounds. It can even live as long as 100 years. Desert tortoises live in the states of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
Troops at the Marine base have to follow rules that protect the tortoises. They are told not to drop any food crumbs that might attract ravens, the main predator of the tortoises.
Living Side By Side
Tortoises share the desert around Twentynine Palms, California, with the United States Marines. Marines are soldiers who serve both on land and sea. The base in Twentynine Palms is nearly as big as the state of Rhode Island.
The Marines there say they take care of the tortoises near the base. Certain areas are off-limits, and soldiers and scientists even help hatch and care for young tortoises. Still, there is a fight between the Marines and environmentalists, groups who care about land and animals.
The problem is a soldier training planned for August. The event was supposed to include guns, bombs and tanks. It was to take place on land that is home to many desert tortoises. The Marines were planning to fly more than 1,100 of the tortoises out of the area to keep them from getting hurt.
The Move Could Harm Them Instead Of Help
Environmentalists say the relocation would kill many of the tortoises. They also say that it would break a United States environmental law. The law protects animals that are in danger of dying out.
Ileene Anderson is a scientist with one environmental group. She says that the move is "a disaster for the already at-risk desert tortoises."
The Defenders of Wildlife is another environmental group. It says that 9 in 10 tortoises in the area have disappeared since the early 1980s. The group blames this drop on a lack of water, disease and an increase in the number of ravens. In addition, the group says people building homes and using off-road vehicles in the desert are also to blame.
The Marines say they are looking after the health of the tortoises. They are planning to spend $50 million on the tortoises through the year 2045 if they relocate them. "We're not just going to throw them over a fence," says Walter Christensen. He helps the military base manage its natural resources. He says that the places the turtles will be moved to are near the base. In addition, he says there is enough water and food there. It is still far enough from the base that the tortoises will not try to walk back.
The Marines have moved the training away from areas where there are many tortoises. They will use fewer tanks, and say that no guns and bombs will be used where the animals live.
Environmentalists' concern is based on another big tortoise move. In 2008, desert tortoises were moved from an Army base near Twentynine Palms. The program was stopped after one year because 3 out of 10 tortoises died. The Marines say that the Army base move is not the same. Brian Henen is a scientist. He says the main cause of death for those tortoises was not having enough water because of the drought in California.
A government group has to agree to the move because the desert tortoise is threatened as a species. The group plans to decide in September whether the Marines can go ahead with moving the tortoises.