SAN DIEGO -- A surveillance drone is buzzing overhead. The
booming of heavy artillery can be heard in the distance.
On the desert floor, Thelma and Louise, the grand dames of the
desert tortoise population at the massive Marine base at Twentynine
Palms, are blissfully munching on their breakfast of mixed fruit and
At one time the two were the pets of a Marine general. But he
deployed to Iraq, and there is no room in a combat rucksack for
tortoises, despite their status as the state reptile of California.
Now Thelma and Louise are assigned to help base officials explain
to schoolchildren the ambitious, albeit slow-moving, plan to reverse
the decline of the desert tortoise on the base by hatching baby
tortoises in a protected facility away from natural predators like
ravens and lizards and man-made ones like tanks and Humvees.
So far, about 500 hatchlings live in the 5-acre Desert Tortoise
Head-Start Facility, protected from predators by wire and netting.
The program began in 2006 under a partnership between the Marine
Corps and UCLA, with a budget of about $100,000 a year from the
Department of Defense.
It will probably be a year or more before any of the young are
released. A 4-year-old tortoise can fit in your hand, a size that
makes it easy pickings for a hungry raven. No wonder that biologists
call young tortoises "walking ravioli."
"The program is going well, but it's taking longer than we
hoped," said Ken Nagy, emeritus professor in the department of
ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, a desert tortoise expert
overseeing the hatchery program. "These animals grow very slowly,
they do everything very slowly."
Slow or not, the Marines are sticking with the program. In
matters of war or endangered species, the Marine Corps is loath to
"If you don't start somewhere, you'll never get where you want,"
said Marie Cottrell, natural and cultural resources officer for the
600,000-acre base, formally known as the Marine Corps Air Ground
Modernity has not been easy on Gopherus agassizii, the desert
tortoise of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Residential
development has put man and tortoise on a collision course; the use
of off-road vehicles has also taken a toll; an upper respiratory
disease has ripped through the tortoise population.
Still, it's the raven that poses the greatest current threat,
according to tortoise experts. The federal government in the mid-
1990s declared 6.4 million acres of desert, most of it in
California, as critical habitat for the tortoise, restricting all
sorts of human activity.
But ravens are oblivious to federal land-use decrees. By one
study, the raven population has increased tenfold in the Mojave and
Sonoran deserts in recent years. …