Desert tortoises at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center located near Las Vegas have been protected for decades. That protection will soon end, though, as federal funds to operate the reserve are dwindling. If it closes, that will mean that officials will likely euthanize the very tortoises for which they’ve been responsible. Hundreds of the tortoises might perish as a result.
Land developers have taken pains to make sure the tortoises are safe, and even hikers have been warned not to mess with the animals. If they do, they’ve been told they would face possible time in prison. The tortoises currently occupy the conservation center, but their time might be running out.
If so, and the funds stop, the people who have been taking care of the tortoises might be the ones to ultimately end their lives. The desert tortoises face a very uncertain future, despite having been on the endangered species list over 20 years, ever since 1990.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray said about the situation the tortoises now face: “It’s the lesser of two evils, but it’s still evil.”
In the meantime, the biologists at the reserve have been going about business as usual, checking out the hard-shelled reptiles for evidence of disease. However, in the next few months, the 220-acre Desert Tortoise Conservation Center won’t accept any new tortoises. Any that arrive this coming fall will unfortunately just be euthanized. The desert dwellers who have lived at the reserve for decades might soon be killed, because there’s not enough money in the current budget to continue to care for them.
Up until now, the Bureau of Land Management has been the organization responsible for the reserve. They have paid for any necessary expenses associated with operating the facility through the fees they’ve managed to collect from any land developers who violate the laws protecting the tortoise reserve.
The Bureau of Land Management was able to easily maintain the budget to care for the tortoises during the housing boom. However, that all changed because of the crippling recession the United States went through and the collapse of the housing market. The facility had operated just fine, but due to the economic downturn, it became more and more difficult to meet the one million dollar budget required per year to maintain the reserve.
It’s been very tough to attempt to meet the budget and scrape together the necessary funds the last few years. For example, the fee that’s charged to developers, called a “federal mitigation fee,” has just accounted for $290,000 of the $1 million needed over almost a year’s time period.
What’s going to happen to the tortoises who aren’t euthanized?
According to wildlife officials working at the center, they will examine the 1,400 tortoises at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center to see which ones seem to be the healthiest, and who might stand the best chances of surviving if they’re released to fend for themselves. Still, the wildlife officials think that over half of the reptiles will have to be euthanized before the reserve closes a little over a year from now, in the final months of 2014.
Wild tortoises are diminishing in number. There used to be millions of them; now, their numbers might be as few as 100,000 in the wild, spread out over four states. Besides Nevada, the reptiles live and have burrows in the states of California, Arizona, and Utah.
With possibly more than half of the tortoises at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center marked for euthanization, the future of these desert dwelling animals is far from certain.
Written by: Douglas Cobb