Save the tortoise!

Southern Nevada's Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is so overrun with the threatened reptiles that it can't perform the research desperately needed to save the species.

Oh, what fun the lads of Monty Python could have with that surreal scenario. But it's all too real, playing out daily at the federal facility managed by the San Diego Zoo in the southwest Las Vegas Valley. And the joke is on the taxpaying public.

Desert tortoises have long been protected under the Endangered Species Act. They've struggled to maintain their numbers across the desolate Mojave Desert over the years, succumbing to disease and predators. But researchers still don't know exactly how many tortoises live in this region, in the wild, the Review-Journal's Henry Brean reported Sunday. That's why your tax dollars continue to pour into the conservation center, so scientists can attempt to get the species to thrive in the Mojave.

But the center, which aims to recover and release 500 tortoises into the wild each year, now has more than 2,400 of the critters. Allyson Walsh, an associate director with the zoo, says there could be as many as 150,000 tortoises living in the Las Vegas Valley alone, and as a result, folks increasingly treat the center as an animal shelter, dropping off abandoned and unwanted tortoises and unexpected babies.

The center is asking the public - pretty please - to stop swamping them with endangered tortoises, because it increases their costs, which you generously cover.

"It's a very unique situation," Ms. Walsh said. "I can't think of another animal that's listed under the Endangered Species Act that is also a pet."

Indeed, tortoises thrive in back yards and homemade habitats. However, the Endangered Species Act's primary concern is not preserving viable total populations of species, but protecting species in their native habitats. That provision has allowed environmentalists to use the law primarily as an anti-development tool by arguing that projects destroy these habitats, and by extension the species as well.

Ironically, anyone wishing to put the region's barren public land to a productive purpose faces regulatory burdens, financial penalties and litigation because of the mission to "save" the tortoise, yet researchers prepare pet tortoises - at your expense - for release into the wild, where they are far more likely to die prematurely than if they were dropped onto a golf course or placed in a classroom pen.

This absurdity highlights the need for major Endangered Species Act reforms - starting with the de-listing of the Mojave Desert tortoise. Consider it saved.