About a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Las Vegas, in the middle of the Mojave Desert on the corner of “no” and “where,” lies the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. The base is well known for its hardened inhabitants, but I’m not talking about the Marines. Surprisingly, it’s the desert tortoise that runs the show, sometimes causing hours of delays during desert training sessions.
Since tortoises wound up on the Endangered Species list in 1990, the Marines have gone to great lengths to protect them. If a tortoise is found in a military training area, all activity halts. A government-contracted civilian desert tortoise specialist agent is called to analyze the creature and remove it from danger. Tortoises evolved to survive the scorching Mojave summers, but evolution didn’t figure on their having to take on the Marines. Startling a tortoise can lead to some pretty unfortunate results, including causing the tortoise to void a year’s supply of water from its bladder, says Kimberleigh Field, a desert tortoise recovery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If a tortoise cannot get to a water supply in enough time to replenish itself, it can die of dehydration.
“If you see a tortoise out in the desert, it’s best to watch and admire from a distance,” Field says. “But it’s OK to pick one up if it’s in a harmful area [such as a highway] and move it off into the desert.”
The desert tortoise population has been in decline, from about 200 adults per square mile in the 1950s to 5-60 adults per square mile this year, but Field said a new recovery plan better coordinates the efforts of land managers, scientists and the people who live and work in the desert to help these tough customers make a comeback.