Sunday, March 26, 2017

Response re: article by Kollibri terre Sonnenblume

In response to this article:
and the ensuing discussion here:

My real name is Chuck Peterson. I started studying desert tortoises in 1987; my first Desert Tortoise Council meeting was 1985. I earned a PhD in 1993 from UCLA working with Ken Nagy. My dissertation was on the ecological physiology of desert tortoises. One of my study sites was the Ivanpah Valley. I was a consulting reviewer of the first Recovery Plan for desert tortoises when they were listed in 1990. I then spent 20 years as a scientist and college professor, studying other species of reptiles to the east, before quitting the academic grind and returning to the Mojave Desert in 2013. My publications are listed here: .  I worked on the Silver State South project and am now working on the MCAGCC translocation. OK? Those are my qualifications to opine on this issue. 

The linked article is political polemic, which is fine. I am no fan of militarism, industrial solar development, off-highway ‘wreckreation’, livestock grazing, predator killing, or anything else that despoils the desert environment and its natural inhabitants, all of which I love wholeheartedly. But I am also a scientist by inclination and training, and it bothers me—a lot—when issues I care about are presented in a misleading and/or dishonest way. And that’s how I would characterize the linked article.

I will briefly address four problems with it here. First, and of least importance, is the title, “Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises”. The problem with it is not that it’s wrong, because some tortoises will die as a result of the USMC’s activities. The problem is that the translocation project, which is the focus of the article, is actually designed to minimize such mortality, not cause it. As correctly stated in the article, Congress has given most of the public land in Johnson Valley to the USMC as an expansion of their already gigantic base. What they are going to do with it is to run twice-yearly combat simulation exercises, each of which will involve 15,000 Marines and 300 tanks converging on a single target area from three staging areas 50 miles away. These will use every weapon in the USMC’s arsenal, including all manner of machine guns, live-fire artillery, full air support, etc. Now you may not like this—I don’t—but that horse is way out of the barn; it’s going to happen. Tortoises would be killed by these exercises, every year, twice a year, and that’s undeniable, leaving translocation out of it. How many? No way for anyone to even tender an accurate estimate. (By the way, Johnson Valley has been “managed” for many years by the BLM as an open OHV area where any yahoo can drive any vehicle anywhere at any time. They never gave 2 shits about the tortoises that live there, and many have been killed, I’ve seen it myself.)

Second, a gross error of omission is the lack of even a single mention of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Do you think it’s the USMC’s desire and idea to spend millions of dollars moving tortoises? As a Federal agency proposing a new action in endangered species habitat, the USMC had to enter Section 7 consultation with USFWS as mandated by the Endangered Species Act. It was USFWS that mandated the translocation project. Not the Marines’ idea at all, as implied in the article, including the title. Now you may disagree with USFWS’s reasoning here, but the knowledgeable and experienced tortoise biologists at the Desert Tortoise Recovery Center made the call that 1) it would be better to try moving tortoises out of the tanks’ way than to leave them there to be crushed in unknowable numbers, and that 2) translocation could be used as a proactive measure to repopulate areas that used to support tortoise populations but which have experienced recent declines (primarily, it is thought, from episodic disease and/or drought (desert tortoises are not supremely adapted to current desert conditions; multi-year drought kills them “naturally” as I showed in a 1994 paper)). So if you want to blame somebody for the translocation project, USFWS is responsible. I’d guess that left to their own devices and absent the ESA the USMC would be happy enough to ignore the issue and just run ‘em over if they could. That might not be fair though.

Third. It is implied, if not stated outright, that translocation is a guaranteed death sentence for tortoises. The objective fact is that nobody—not you, not me, not “biologists involved with the project”, not the Center for Biological Diversity—can say that with any assurance. USFWS, for one, is hypothesizing that it’s not true. It is true that results of previous projects have been mixed. (Not universally disastrous; mixed. A second grader could see the intellectually dishonest bullshit in a passage like : “Though the rates of survival have varied from project to project, they are often no better than 50%...This particular translocation at the Twentynine Palms base will be the largest so far attempted, of over 1100 animals. So it would not be surprising if at least 500 deaths resulted, and perhaps far more.” Give me a fucking break.) Moapa was a travesty of stupid mismanagement. Ivanpah results are incompletely known; thanks private-corporation “science”. Mistakes have been made. On the other hand, those industrial solar projects completely obliterated the habitat (it makes me sick to my stomach) and mortality would have been guaranteed 100% without moving them. But let’s talk about Ft. Irwin for a second, because that’s the one that CBD points to as the indicator of Doom. Yes, 50% mortality occurred in one subset of translocated tortoises. But what doesn’t get mentioned by polemicists and activist “scientists” is that mortality was also very high that year—in fact, statistically indistinguishable—in nearby control populations that were neither moved nor received relocates. It was bad for tortoises in that area that year, period, moved or not moved. There were no rabbits or rats and that’s when coyotes turn to tortoises. The timing was extraordinarily bad, but there is NO EVIDENCE that translocation per se was responsible for the mortality. USFWS is trying to learn lessons from these previous attempts and failures. The MCAGCC project is being run as a large, well-considered and –designed scientific experiment to see if large-scale translocation can be used in the future as a viable conservation tool (in the face of seemingly inevitable continued development of habitat). And the FACT is that no matter what anybody says, nobody knows how it will turn out. I can say that everybody involved in running the project—I have known most of the principals for 30 years or more—is sincerely dedicated to doing right by the animals. I won’t stand for hearing their motives impugned by ignorant blowhards.

Finally, Laura Cunningham supplies an accurate depiction of the protocols for 100% tortoise clearance for industrial solar sites. But it’s completely irrelevant to the MCAGCC project. The habitat at solar projects is going to be completely bulldozed and graded, and that’s why every effort is made to locate every single tortoise by digging up burrows, tearing up Yucca clumps, etc. I did it myself at Silver State South. BUT: it’s not happening at MCAGCC. Burrows are not being excavated. Habitat of other wildlife is not being damaged (by biologists; the Marines will sure as hell tear some up though). So all the concern about other species that use tortoise burrows is misplaced. Instead, the protocol relies on repeated surveying. Before EVERY Marine exercise, every square kilometer in which two or more tortoises were found on the previous survey will be re-surveyed. This is scheduled to continue for 30 (THIRTY) years. As will follow-up studies of relocated tortoises, “recipient” tortoises that already live at release sites, and control populations without relocation. (By the way, contra Ileene Anderson in the article, there is no evidence whatsoever that tortoises compete among themselves for limited resources. It’s either a good year with plenty for everyone, an OK year with not much for anyone, or a crap year with nothing for nobody.) It is an experiment. In science we don’t prejudge the results of an experiment. It may well turn out to be a good thing to have done; that’s what USFWS thinks anyway. Anybody who thinks they know better is deluding themselves.

But gah I don’t have time for this. I just wish that well-meaning people who love the desert and its fabulous wildlife would take the time and effort to get their facts straight before going off half-cocked. It doesn’t help anything to promulgate bullshit. That’s all I have to say on the subject.