No desert tortoise hatchling left behind. Fist... | Tort Time

No desert tortoise hatchling left behind. Fist Bump! to the Marines!

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 vegetable slices.

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.

Fist bump to the Marines for creating a sanctuary for desert tortoises.

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 loathe to retreat.

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