Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises


Desert Tortoise. Photo by the author.


This spring, if all goes as planned, the Marines will kill hundreds of desert tortoises in southern California. This is not the first such tortoise kill, but it could very well set a new record-high number.

This assault was originally scheduled for last spring, in 2016 (with the full approval of the Obama administration), and was put off for a year only because of a lawsuit filed by an environmentalist organization. Now, with all chances for legal appeal passed, it is set to commence in late March or April in the Mojave Desert.

So what’s the story?

In 2013, Congress voted to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California—which was already the largest Marine base in the world—by annexing 88,000 acres (about 136 square miles) from the Bureau of Land Management’s Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, to the west of the base in the Mojave Desert.

This area is part of the ancestral home of the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), a species that has lived there for many thousands of years, since the days when it was wetter. As the climate gradually dried out, the tortoise adapted by spending more time underground. In our contemporary age, they are in their burrows over 90% of the time! In the spring, when wildflowers brought by winter rains are flourishing, the tortoises emerge to eat and mate. They generally live 35-50 years, with reports of particular specimens reaching 80.

Though Desert Tortoises thrived at populations of up to 1000 individuals per square mile at the beginning of the 20th Century, their numbers have fallen drastically since then. Human activities are to blame including ranching, roads, agriculture, industry, military operations, off-highway recreation (“wreckreation”), urban encroachment, and in recent years, solar and wind projects. Also, with Global Warming, the climate is changing faster than the tortoise can adapt. In the last decade, the tortoise population has fallen by 50% in the western Mojave Desert, where the Twentynine Palms Marine base is located.

Desert Tortoises are listed as “threatened with extinction” by the federal government. Because of this status, it is illegal for anyone—even the military—to “harm” or “harass” them. The Marines plan to use the annex for training with tanks and live ammunition, which would certainly result in both harm and harassment, so they sought to move the tortoises somewhere else, although this too would cause harm and harassment. After a legal delay of one year forced upon them by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Arizona, the Marines now have the go-ahead to start “translocating” the animals, as soon as late March.

This is where the killing starts.

There is enough data from attempted tortoise translocations in the past to make estimates about how this latest effort will go. Though the rates of survival have varied from project to project, they are often no better than 50%. (See Desert Tortoise Recovery: Science and Politics Clash.) This particular translocation at the Twentynine Palms base will be the largest so far attempted, of over 1100 animals. So it would not be surprising if at least 500 deaths resulted, and perhaps far more.

This number includes about 900 adult animals (of 180mm in size or larger) who were tagged with radio-transmitters as they were found over the last three years. An additional 235 were too small for transmitters and were moved to the base where the Marines have been raising them. (So some tortoises have already been disturbed.)

How are the tortoises found in the first place and what’s it look like to round them up? For an answer to this question, I contacted Laura Cunningham, a biologist who works with Basin & Range Watch and who has participated in tortoise translocation projects herself. She also detailed how other animals are affected when tortoises are removed. It is worth quoting her at length:

“Here is the basic mechanics of tortoise translocation: after placing tortoise exclusion fencing around a project, biologists do a ‘Clearance Survey’ which entails dozens of biologists walking in straight lines criss-crossing the project area, all carefully walking a certain length apart and following GPS coordinates. Any tortoise found above ground is radio-transmittered [if it hasn’t been already] and carefully moved into transport boxes and readied for translocation (which is going to be partly by helicopter for 29 Palms Marine Base). Each biologist carries a shovel. All burrows encountered are dug out to locate any tortoise underground. These tortoises are also carefully removed. Two or three sweeps are needed usually to find all the adults. Even then sometimes a few are missed and found later. Many of the tiny juvenile tortoises are missed, those the size of a silver dollar—they are crushed in machinery later or buried alive or impacted later during tank maneuvers.

“Digging out burrows of this keystone species, the tortoise, is difficult because it ripples across the desert ecosystem: so many other species depend on the digging abilities of the tortoise with its long front claws. Burrowing owls, rattlesnakes, lizards, tarantulas, and other species utilize the burrows. They must be dealt with as well. Rattlesnakes are left in the desert to fend for themselves. Burrowing owls are being given increasingly careful attention, if their sign is found at a burrow, the owls are watched to see when they fly out and the burrow is closed up so they cannot return. The idea is to try to get the owls to move away to another location outside the area. But I am not sure anyone has a good idea how many burrowing owls die when they are flushed from their burrow and become homeless. There are new agency guidelines to try to limit impacts to this species, which also may need federal listing under the ESA [Endangered Species Act] as it too is declining.

“Desert kit foxes dig their own burrows, but biologists must dig out those burrows to in case a tortoise is living there. So kit foxes are also displaced, and guidelines are followed to try to make this enforced homelessness have the least impacts as possible. But again, little studied. A canine distemper outbreak happened on the Genesis Solar Energy Project in the Chuckwalla Valley, killing some. Coyotes and badgers are also displaced. In parts of southern Nevada and eastern California deserts, rare Gila monsters are displaced from burrows as well.”

Additionally, the areas into which the tortoises are to be moved seem less than ideal as they already host tortoise populations that are in decline. According to Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity whom I contacted for this story, the reasons for this decline are not entirely known but include elements that can be controlled such as grazing, off-road recreation and predation and others that are more difficult to control such as drought and disease. “Until the controllable ones are controlled,” Anderson said, “it does not bode well for the translocated or resident tortoises since they will now be competing for resources.”

Two animals that are commonly predators of tortoises are coyotes and ravens, who are both native to the Mojave Desert too. According to the Press Enterprise, the Marines have already announced that if coyotes are a problem, they will shoot them. According to the LA Times, some have already been “removed” by state wildlife authorities.

As I was finishing this story, I got word through Basin & Range Watch that the Marines at the Twentynine Palms base are hosting Coyote hunts on March 25th and 26th. The Marines’ announcement stated: “The purpose of the depredation program is to reduce the numbers of coyotes that are unnaturally inflated in the local area due to human subsidies. Elevated coyote numbers prove a safety risk to residents, and are a significant factor in the mortality of the desert tortoise.” The response to this news by Basin & Range Watch reads, in part: “The so-called mitigation of killing coyotes is a false action that will not help recover the tortoise, and will only disrupt desert ecosystems more. Coyotes are a native, natural species that belong to the Mojave Desert. Tanks, Humvees, bombing, live-fire exercises, and military maneuvers do not belong to the desert. The military has enough land to carry out tests and training, they do not need to keep expanding.”

The ravens might be luckier as they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, though some have already been killed by “wildlife authorities.” The LA Times ran a story about how the Marines plan to use non-harmful lasers to scare the ravens away. The article also said that “the anti-raven arsenal” “includes ‘techno-tortoises’: highly realistic replicas of baby tortoises that, when pecked or bitten, emit irritants derived from grape juice concentrate, a chemical compound already used to keep birds from congregating on agricultural fields and commercial centers.” However, as John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington and expert on raven behavior who was quoted in the same Times article said: “My concerns are that we don’t really know how long these forms of aversion therapy will last among raven populations, which are very clever at responding to challenges.” And then what? More killing?

Not all of the tortoises will be subject to translocation. Some will be subject to staying, to face the tanks and live ammunition. Any tortoises that show signs of communicable disease will be left behind, so as not to infect healthy tortoises in the new area. Anderson estimates these would number 100 or less. She thinks that the Marines “might” monitor these animals to see if they survive.

Summing up the desert tortoise’s plight, Ileene Anderson said that “this species is continuing to decline throughout its range, and continually decreasing its habitat—whether that be through military expansions or other types of development—will only be detrimental to recovery efforts, because the tortoise needs habitat in order to survive, just like every other species on the planet.”

* * *

Militarism is problematic, to say the very very least, for many many reasons. We might first mourn the human casualties, of course; those killed, maimed or made homeless or stateless. We might also think of the cities turned to rubble, with their art and history buried or burned. We might consider, too, the immense monetary cost of all of it, and how every bomb is, in a very real way, stealing food out of someone’s mouth or a roof from over their heads. But rarely do we consider the affected ecosystems and their inhabitants. (One exception is this excellent article by Joshua Frank: Afghanistan: Bombing the Land of the Snow Leopard.)

Unfortunately, the military is seeking to expand into other desert areas (such as in Nevada). In protesting or attempting to curtail these expansions, I would hope to see some collaboration between activists who oppose war and those who support animal rights.

* * *

How the Media Whitewashes Stories Like This

An AP story about the planned translocation from Twentynine Palms ends with the sentence, “Critics say the move will devastate the threatened species.” Considering the facts, this way of putting it is pretty flip and really only just short of dismissive. Which is why I titled this piece, “Headlines should read, ‘Marines to Kill Tortoises’.” Because it’s a fact that they will and somebody ought to just say it.

When we speak of the bias of the corporate media, we are referring to multiple aspects. In general, there is bias in favor of the wealthy, the conventional and the institutional and against the poor, unconventional and the individual. For example, anyone who has ever attended a boisterous protest and then watched the TV coverage of it afterwards will have noticed the corporate media bias against protesters and in favor of the police. If the police attacked the protesters, this will almost assuredly be described as, “protesters clashed with police.”

There is also a bias in the media in favor of stressing stated intent and brushing aside likely consequences when the consequences will be negative. This one is subtle but universal. As far as the media’s point of view is concerned, it’s not that tortoises are sure to die, it’s only that the Marines plan to move them, and, it is implied, move them safely. But it is sure that tortoises will die. Just as it is sure that civilians will be killed when cities are bombed, even if the intent is “humanitarian” and the targets “terrorists.”

“Collateral” is the word typically used by the media to describe the deaths of civilians in warfare, and it would be their style to apply it to tortoises killed by translocation. Wiktionary defines this sense of that adjective as “being aside from the main subject, target, or goal; tangential, subordinate, ancillary.” But if such death is inevitable, how can it be separated from the “main subject”? How can it be considered “tangential”?

There is a fundamental dishonesty in every news story that presents stories in this fashion. It’s called “white-washing.” Because all our information is spoon-fed to us in this same sanitized way, we first of all never think about it and secondly, have little collective knowledge (and hence concern) about what’s going on in the world, and how the US and its policies affect other people, living things, and the planet at large.

It is a measure of our misbegotten privilege that we can live in such a state of denial at all, in a bubble. And it is violence that empowers that privilege in the first place. It is upon the graves of Indians and the whipped backs of slaves that the US gained its power and it is through the military and economic subjugation of much of the world at large that it is now sustained. There’s nothing “collateral” about any of the suffering and damage that results from this system.

What do the poor tortoises have to do with any of it? Nothing, obviously, but this is the way of empire, that they must suffer too.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press