The cardinal rule for Marines training at the Twentynine Palms Air Ground Combat Center in Southern California’s Mojave Desert is this: Don’t make the tortoise pee.
Whether troops are learning to drive tanks through the desert or practicing assaults, scaring a desert tortoise so much that it urinates is the one thing that can turn coexistence with the threatened animal from a mild nuisance into a serious disruption.
The tortoise survives on just 2 liters of water per year, aided by kidneys that can reabsorb urine from the bladder to rehydrate multiple times. That means when a tortoise urinates, it loses a significant portion of its annual water supply, increasing the likelihood it will die before the next rainfall.
The Fish and Wildlife Service allows any Marine who has read an informational packet to pick up a tortoise and move it out of harm’s way if the animal lumbers into a training area. If the tortoise relieves itself, it must be rehydrated. And only three people stationed at Twentynine Palms are authorized to help it do so.
On a base that spans more than 998 square miles, a peeing tortoise can delay a training exercise by four or five hours.
More than 400 threatened and endangered species coexist with troops on Department of Defense lands. Military bases and DOD lands are home to more threatened and endangered species per acre than those of any other government agency, including the Interior Department.
The fact is a source of both pride and resentment for members of the military who value natural resources but feel they have an undue burden of preserving species endangered by other human activity.
The majority of military installations were built in remote locations after World War II to help provide troops with a variety of realistic training environments. As human development encroached on bases, the installations were often the last bastions of untouched habitat for local endangered species.
Near Fort Benning, Ga., which was founded in 1918, the timber industry cut down the 100-year-old pine trees that endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers rely on, while fires started on artillery ranges kept the trees on base healthy by burning the understory.
“These species aren’t endangered because of the bases, it’s off the bases that are the problem,” said Robert Larimore, natural resources manager at Fort Benning. “We are the ones taking care of the ecosystem like we should. The problem with the timber industry is it takes 100 years to grow back a 100-year-old tree for the woodpecker.”