Public Land Seizure for Military Bombing Range Threatens California Desert and Desert Tortoise

For Immediate Release

Center for Biological Diversity
Contact: 

Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity, (323) 654-5943 (office); (323) 490-0223 (mobile)

Public Land Seizure for Military Bombing Range Threatens California Desert and Desert Tortoise

LOS ANGELES - The Bureau of Land Management has issued a Notice of Proposed
Legislative Withdrawal to enable the eventual transfer of 365,906 acres
of fragile public land in the Mojave Desert to the U.S. Marine Corps
for bombing, tank training and other "live fire" exercises.

The lands identified by the Marine Corps for its Air Ground Combat
Center training grounds near Twentynine Palms include habitat critical
for survival of the threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and desert bighorn sheep. The Marine Corps says it needs the expansion for national security.

"National security doesn't require seizing and bombing public lands and
threatened species habitat," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the
Center for Biological Diversity. "The public needs more explanation on
the need for the proposed expansion under which deserts and wildlife
that are already in decline will fall victim to tank treads, heavy
artillery and other destructive military activity."

Today's proposal is the latest in a string of threats to the tortoise.
Having survived more than a million years in California's deserts,
desert tortoise numbers are now crashing, particularly in the West
Mojave, where much of the expansion would occur. The population decline
is due to numerous factors, including disease, habitat degradation,
crushing by vehicles, military and suburban development, and predators.
Because of its dwindling numbers, the desert tortoise, California's
official state reptile, is now protected under both federal and state
endangered species acts. The expansion could also lead to additional disastrous tortoise relocations.
Nearly 2,000 tortoises are already being experimentally relocated for
the expansion of Fort Irwin, an Army post about 25 miles north of the
Marine Corps base. That effort so far has resulted in unexpectedly high
tortoise mortality rates.

In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a new draft recovery plan
that would weaken protections for the tortoise. The plan provides only
vague descriptions of recovery actions - actions that are not derived
from the best available science. Recently, population genetics studies
have identified the desert tortoise in the western portion of the
Mojave Desert as distinctly different from its relatives to the
northern, eastern, and southern portions. This finding sheds new light
on why increased conservation and relocation success are more important
than ever for the Fort Irwin effort.

"The legacy
of one million years of evolutionary history should not fall victim to
our president's failed war," Anderson said. "Endangered species remain
the Bush administration's very lowest priority - and in its final days,
the administration appears to have set its sights on speeding the
desert tortoise towards extinction."

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