For decades, the vulnerable US desert tortoise has led a sheltered existence on a sprawling conservation reserve outside Las Vegas. But the pampered desert dweller now faces a threat from the very people who have nurtured it. Federal funds are running out at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center and officials plan to close the site and euthanize hundreds of the tortoises they've been caring for since the animals were added to the endangered species list in 1990. Officials will determine which of the 1,400 inhabitants are hearty enough to release into the wild; more than half are likely to be euthanized in the coming months in preparation for closure at the end of 2014.
The Bureau of Land Management has paid for the facility with fees imposed on developers who disturb tortoise habitat on public land. As the housing boom swept through southern Nevada in the 2000s, the tortoise budget swelled. But when the recession hit, the housing market contracted, and the bureau and its local government partners began struggling to meet the center's $1 million annual budget. "With the money going down and more and more tortoises coming in, it never would have added up," says a BLM spokeswoman. No more than 100,000 tortoises are thought to survive in the habitat where millions once burrowed across parts of Utah, California, Arizona, and Nevada. Click for more on the once-abundant creatures, which at one point were scooped up as souvenirs. (Read more tortoise stories.)