Desert tortoises are considered a threatened species across the Southwest, where they're battling drought, climate change, habitat loss, and predators. Now, environmentalists fear a Mojave Desert population will be eradicated entirely by a plan that's apparently meant to save them, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Marine Corps' Air Ground Combat Center in the Mojave will soon expand 165 square miles into the tortoises' habitat and officials have come up with a $50 million plan to move the tortoises elsewhere. In what a base rep tells the Desert Sun is an effort "to safeguard the animals," 100 biologists will capture 900 adult tortoises and transport them to three sites via helicopter over four to six weeks in the spring. Another 235 juveniles will be raised in pens, then moved once they're no longer vulnerable to predatory birds.
The biologist that's heading the project (which was approved by the US Fish and Wildlife Service) says the budget "demonstrates how much we care about this species" and will allow officials to monitor the animals for 30 years. But critics aren't so sure. The Times notes tortoises become stressed when handled by humans and vulnerable to predators, dehydration, and disease when moved to unfamiliar areas. A similar project that moved 670 tortoises away from the Army's National Training Center in 2008 was halted when 90 tortoises died. Another 9,136 were moved to a site in Nevada between 2004 and 2014, yet only 370 could be found there in 2015. An environmental planner at the base counters thusly: "We've learned a lot from past mistakes of others. We wouldn't be doing this if we felt the desert tortoise wasn't viable in the Mojave."