Sixty desert tortoises, each equipped with a radio transmitter and trailing a small antenna, were released Sept. 21 at the southern end of the Nevada National Security Site, 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Researchers plan to track the critters over the next year as part of a $100,000 study ultimately aimed at increasing the animal’s numbers in the wild.
Of course, that phrase “in the wild” is vital in reconciling the notion of a “threatened” species with the fact that there are so many desert tortoises in Clark County that government agents have taken to euthanizing them.
Researchers admit that — more than two decades after they first labeled the species “threatened” — they still have no “baseline” population figure, no idea how many “wild” Mojave Desert tortoises there used to be, how many there are, or how many there ought to be.
So when will they be able to tell us whether we have enough new tortoises, bred in their joyously cattle-free “conservation center,” to de-list the species and allow humans in these parts to get back to developing our land as we see fit?
Or is the tortoise merely a cat’s paw, its unmeasurable and thus endless ongoing “preservation” intended precisely to make sure neither large-scale development nor ranching can ever resume?
Government biologists assume tortoise numbers “in the wild” are on the decline, based on their theory that the primary threats are “habitat destruction” and disease — even though population densities reveal the favored habitat of the tortoise is arguably the suburban golf course, and the main cause of disease in the animals seems to consist of being rounded up and placed in overcrowded government pens.
As of a few years ago, officials had rounded up more than 10,000 of the little reptiles, right here in the Vegas Valley, turning them over to the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a research and recovery facility the San Diego Zoo operates at the southwestern edge of the Las Vegas Valley under a partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Of those, Marci Henson of the county’s Desert Conservation Program estimated about 2 percent of the poor little “threatened” reptiles get “euthanized” after developing respiratory problems.
(“Run, little tortoises, run!” as former County Commissioner Don Schlesinger once put it.)
Ignoring the urban populations in order to call the tortoise “threatened” is like saying pigeons and house cats are “threatened” in Las Vegas because they seem to prosper best only in the urban and suburban environments created by mankind (which is “unnatural” and thus “doesn’t count,”) while faring less well amongst the coyotes of the deep desert.
‘AT SATURATION LEVELS’
Back in the 1990s, native Las Vegan Harry Pappas was appointed to the Bureau of Land Management Citizen Advisory Council by then-Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich. He later represented the State Rifle & Pistol Association on the Clark County Tortoise Advisory Council.
“They said the (desert) tortoise was threatened, so they had to fence off these huge areas and shut out all the cattle, which means no one is out there shooting the coyotes and the raven or trapping the lions any more, so of course that wrecked the hunting,” Mr. Pappas recalled, back in 2001. “They said anyone who found a tortoise had to turn it in” to Clark County authorities.
“So what happened? They got so overrun with tortoises being turned in that they told us they were going to have to start euthanizing them. I said ‘Hold on a minute, here. Euthanize them? Why don’t you just drop them out in the desert?’ They said ‘Oh no, they’ll fight with the native tortoises that already live out there and they’ll kill each other, because all these lands are already at saturation levels.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, now: Which is it? How can they be ‘threatened,’ or ‘endangered’ … but now you tell us all these lands are at ‘saturation levels’ for tortoises?”
Mr. Pappas recalled a wildlife biologist from California who, more than a decade ago, spoke before the BLM’s Citizen Advisory Council, bringing in “two huge plastic garbage bags full of baby tortoise shells — there had to be hundreds of them, probably thousands. Every one of these shells had a hole pecked through the top where the ravens had carried them off and pecked through the shell and eaten the baby tortoise right out of the shell, and he said they picked these up in middens around the raven nests, just thousands of them.”
Cattle weren’t the problem, Harry has always insisted. In fact, cattlemen formerly reduced the populations of predators including the coyote and the raven, which benefited tortoise populations.
“But now they say the way to protect the tortoise is to fence off the land and not let the ranchers and the hunters in, when the biggest tortoise populations we ever had were in the ’50s and ’60s, when you had plenty of ranching, and plenty of hunting, and plenty of predator control,” Harry insists.
‘UNLIMITED BREEDING’ BAD
Cliven Bundy, the last cattle rancher in Clark County, reports that when the Kern River pipeline people came through and did a federally mandated tortoise population density study as part of their required Environmental Impact Statement, they found several times more tortoises per acre on the lands where the Bundys have water lines and tanks for their cattle than they found in the hot, dry desert — and literally 10 times the tortoise population density — the highest densities recorded — right here in the Las Vegas valley.
This isn’t even counterintuitive. Early explorers found precious few tortoises in the dry Mojave desert. The Spaniards found only shells and thought them extinct.
In the 1920s and ’30s, tortoise populations swelled to artificially high numbers as ranchers ran cattle on these lands, meantime killing off the tortoises’ main predators, the coyote and the raven.
As “environmentalists” have succeeded in running the ranchers off the land, the cattle have vanished along with their water tanks, no one is any longer shooting coyotes and ravens, and thus tortoise populations have slumped back to historically normal levels.
Do these government agents even want to see the species recover?
Marci Henson, of the county’s Desert Conservation Program, has warned “Unlimited breeding of an endangered species in captivity is something the community has to look into.”
To stop it?
“Yes,” Ms. Henson confirmed.
A similar but larger program than last week’s release — the relocation of 770 desert tortoises from Fort Irwin into the open desert in California — was suspended in 2008 after 90 percent of the transplants were promptly devoured by predators.
Until Friday, all of the tortoises released into the bleak Test Site landscape Friday lived at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Some grew up as backyard pets. Their experience at foraging for food and evading coyotes and other predators is presumably minimal.
One wonders how the scientists would respond if the tortoises — Lassie-like — promptly turned south and began relentlessly plodding their way back to the beckoning green lawns of Las Vegas.