Is Translocation the Right Thing to Do for Maintaining Biodiversity in the Mojave Desert?

My earliest encounter with efforts to maintain biodiversity came when I was a Marine stationed in 29 Palms, CA. The terrain on the base (the largest Marine Corps base in the world) was rugged and unforgiving for Marines. For the species that called the high Mojave Desert home, the environment was ideal. Ideal until the expansion of base activities and other off-road ventures by residents and visitors. I was a tank crewman and our company went on several field operation training missions monthly. We were provided with a wealth of information related to training safety and desert survival, but one part of our briefing that stood out were the instructions we were given on how to deal with the native Desert Tortoise population. The basic rule we were to observe was to avoid disrupting the creatures at all costs. I was able to see how seriously this rule was taken when a line of 20+ tanks stopped on a trail to the final training site because a Desert Tortoise had ventured into our intended path. We waited for well over an hour until the route was clear. Knowing how rigid our schedules were and how seriously our leaders took sticking to a strict timeline, it was apparent that protecting the tortoises was high priority – even higher than our routine training events.

Part of our training in how to deal with the Desert Tortoise was a briefing that explained what would or could happen if we disturbed one of the reptiles. We were told that direct contact or near contact with a human would elicit a stress response in the tortoise that could cause it to empty its body of all of its water. This response would prove hazardous to the health of the tortoise and leave it vulnerable to attack for other indigenous predators. Years later, I saw a highlight of a professional golf event where a turtle of some kind had wandered onto the course during the tournament. Another player rushed over and grabbed the turtle and walked briskly off the course. While removing the animal, a stream of water began flowing from the rear of the shell. The broadcast crew, as well as the patrons, were amused at the sight but I remembered what I had learned about the Desert Tortoise and feared for its safety.

The Desert Tortoise had been established as an endangered species in 1994 (shortly before I was stationed in 29 Palms). This designation was no doubt part of the reason for the serious effort by the Marine Corps to treat the tortoises delicately. Soon after the late-1990s, a plan was initiated to relocate the population of Desert Tortoises to a more remote location for conservation and maintenance of biodiversity in the region. This plan appeared to satisfy all parties involved: The tortoises would be spared the intrusion by Marines operating on the base, the Marines would be able to conduct their important exercises, and wildlife officials would have found an equitable solution to assuage their fears of extinction and the ramifications of a reduction in biodiversity in the Mojave.

Experts, however, disagree on the efficacy of a translocation plan and conflicts have arisen with regards to the Marine Corps’ plan as well as other plans to build infrastructure for renewable energy facilities in the desert. The crux of the disagreement is in the viability of the displaced populations. Concerns such as disruption to social compacts, disorientation in terms of resources the tortoises need for survival (water, shelter), and the spreading of disease from one specific species to others. Recent data has shown that the fears of conservationists who were against translocation proved warranted. From 2004-2014, a similar relocation project transplanted 9,136 tortoises from Las Vegas to a nearby federal translocation site. Only 370 of those relocated could be located for review in 2015. It is apparent that a hasty plan to remove the animals and relocate them elsewhere serves the interests of the human population (military, recreation, renewable energy plants) but does not adequately address the needs of the Desert Tortoise and the overall biodiversity of the region.

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