Don’t scare the tortoise! Troops tiptoe around endangered species

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.”

Nicole Sikula of the Army’s Environmental Command said this type of resentment is common but unavoidable. The issue, she said, is that the law protects existing habitat that has not been damaged instead of going after those who initially put the species at risk. While it may place a burden on the military, it’s an understandable one, she said.

“The law isn’t based on who is the main threat to the species, the law is we go through a process to make sure we don’t further jeopardize it,” she said.

Though conserving endangered species can present obstacles, military officials say it’s part of their job description.

“A lot of the guys we train do respect the environment, and they do get the point,” said Twentynine Palms base biologist Brian Henen. “We don’t have to brainwash anyone into saying the natural resources are important. They already get that this is part of the America they’re training to protect.”

He added, “Overall, simply removing the tortoise is actually an easy solution as far as protecting endangered species goes.”

Managing a listing

The House passed a defense authorization bill in May including a rider that would delist two endangered species — the lesser prairie chicken and American burying beetle — and bar listing of the greater sage grouse (E&E Daily, June 19). The fate of that language is unclear as a conference committee works to massage differences between the House version of the bill and the one the Senate passed in June.

But neither DOD nor any of the five military branches have ever requested that legislators take such action for any species. Instead, the military tries to avoid endangered species listings for on-site species by aggressively protecting them.

At the Army’s Yakima Training Center in Washington state, where a sage grouse listing would have the largest impact among military installations, activities are already restricted in a 77,000-acre area during the bird’s mating and breeding season.

That kind of “proactive planning” helps protect species at risk of being listed, said Sikula. If FWS decides a species is endangered, it takes into account an installation’s conservation efforts when determining restrictions, she said.

National Military Fish and Wildlife Association President Coralie Cobb agreed. While dealing with newly listed species is “always a little disruptive,” she said, well-prepared installations are not overburdened.

“A species being threatened or endangered doesn’t really change what we are doing,” said Cobb, who works for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest. “Legally, you are allowed to have a greater impact on the habitat of a threatened species versus an endangered one, but then that would just make us more likely to be dealing with an endangered species down the road, which we do not want to do.”

In fact, conservation at bases is second nature because they rely on natural habitat to provide realistic training environments, she said.

“When we train, we want to be the least disruptive to the environment as possible because we are training for future missions,” Cobb said. “You don’t want to leave evidence you have been there; you don’t want footprints in the sand, or broken tree branches, because you don’t want the enemy to know your position. That works out really well with conservation.”

Still, Cobb and Sikula both said having endangered species living on an installation is not ideal. A listing brings the fear that FWS could prohibit critical training exercises or other activities.

That concern is unfounded, according to FWS.

When a project might harm an endangered species, an installation can ask FWS for an exemption. The agencies consult informally to determine whether a conflict can be prevented by changing the activity or rescheduling it. If damage is unavoidable, the process turns into a “formal consultation” on whether the activity will jeopardize the species’s overall existence.

The process is meant to “minimize the impacts of the Endangered Species Act on their facilities and operations,” FWS spokesman Gavin Shire said in a statement.

Not one of the 1,748 informal and 385 formal consultations since 2008 has prevented a DOD project from continuing, including a 2005 relocation of the Army’s tank and armored vehicle training operations to Fort Benning — home to the red-cockaded woodpecker.

After consulting with FWS, Fort Benning received permission to damage 91 potential breeding groups in order to build $4 million worth of training roads through woodpecker habitat for soldiers learning to drive tanks.

“We had to anticipate going off the road and having impacts running over trees the birds live in, skinning trees, compacting the roots and killing trees, everything that might happen when you are teaching troops to use armored vehicles,” Larimore said.

Ultimately, FWS overestimated. Larimore said the construction and training took out only five potential breeding groups.

“We continually work together to seek solutions that balance the needs of conservation and our troops,” Shire said. “Provisions are already in place that enable our armed forces to prioritize military readiness over listed species where it is critical for carrying out their core functions.”

DOD spent $1.1 billion on protecting threatened and endangered species between fiscal 1991 and 2014. The red-cockaded woodpecker and the desert tortoise are the most expensive species, together costing DOD $304.9 million since 1991.

Individual installations

Managing endangered species can be challenging not just because animals can be complicated but because installations are, too.

Twentynine Palms is not home to a specific unit but hosts different sets of troops for two-week rotations of intensive training. Each new Marine must be taught anew about the tortoise.

“If you approach it from behind, it won’t see you coming, and that could frighten it. If you approach it too quickly, it might think you are a predator, and that could frighten it,” said Henen, the base biologist, providing an abridged version of how he briefs new arrivals. “The key is to approach it slowly, pick it up, don’t shake it, and hold it close to the ground while you transport it so it can still see the ground and won’t get scared and urinate.”

The specificity works. Troops move tortoises successfully 20 to 30 times per year at the base without incident. In the past nine years, Henen has received only two calls to rehydrate a tortoise that urinated.

Though the tortoise protections are notorious at DOD, similar sea turtle removals at Camp Lejeune, N.C., hardly garner a mention.

There, Marines and sea turtles share a beach for amphibious vehicle training and nesting.

But because the sea turtles lay their eggs overnight, program manager Craig Tenbrink said, his team is able to remove any nests before training begins.

“I think a lot of what we do is invisible,” he said. “The Marines training may have no idea that there was a nest there that morning because we remove the conflict.”

Tenbrink’s staff also monitors nighttime training. But turtles have never disrupted the exercises, largely because Camp Lejeune doesn’t night train between mid-May and October when sea turtles lay and hatch eggs on the beach.

Conservation partnerships

In many cases, endangered species populate a specific area of a base that becomes off-limits to troops stationed there.

That was the case in the 1990s when red-cockaded woodpecker habitat was found only on five Army bases in the Southeast. Then, many installation activities were seasonally restricted in the longleaf pine forests, and soldiers had to avoid a year-round 200-foot buffer around any tree harboring a woodpecker.

The solution was a partnership with the Nature Conservancy to acquire more land abutting bases in an attempt to coax the woodpecker off-post. Under the agreement, DOD funded Nature Conservancy land purchases of attractive woodpecker habitat, and the Nature Conservancy agreed to preserve it in perpetuity.

Since then, the number of woodpecker clusters on Army posts has increased by 43 percent, improving faster than populations on FWS lands. Woodpecker populations are above recovery goals at four of the five installations.

The program has been widely adapted, including at Camp Bullis, Texas, where the Army preserved 6,000 acres of golden-cheeked warbler habitat off-post in order to build a landing strip and troop staging area on the installation.

“It was a win for us, because we relieved training pressures, and a win for the warbler, too,” Army attorney Jim Cannizzo said.


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