The mission: to airlift 1,156 desert tortoises to a place where there's no threat of being flattened by tanks. The Marines are this month moving the reptiles out of a corner of California's Mojave Desert where the Corps will soon begin extensive live-fire training, the Los Angeles Times reports. Packed up two per plastic bin, the hubcap-sized creatures are being loaded into helicopters and flown 25 miles away to federal lands beyond the Marines' Twentynine Palms base northeast of Palm Springs. Their new home is far enough away to keep tortoises from wandering back into the line of fire when the Marines begin "longer and more involved" training exercises this summer that the Press-Enterprise reports will better position them to carry out missions in "global hot spots."
Operation Desert Tortoise doesn't come cheap: Its $50 million price tag covers everything from the 125 biologists USNI News describes as setting out to locate, examine, and box up the tortoises to an agreed-upon 30 years of monitoring. The Marines have been pushing for this move since 2008, an effort complicated by the tortoises' "threatened" status. Environmentalists threatened to sue, citing the harm that taking away 100 square miles of habitat might do, but the Times reports the program got final approval after the US Fish and Wildlife Service said it couldn't finish its review before the spring relocation window closed. A biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity expressed concerns there might not be adequate food in the new habitat. (This really old tortoise is the "savior" of the Galapagos.)