Save the habitat, kill the turtles


When -- in the name of heaven, I demand to know -- are those responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act going to do something about remediating the habitat devastation and starting to recover the minuscule remaining population, before it has dwindled past the point of no return, of that brave and noble beast, the poodle?

What? Are you serious, Vin? There are, like, 68 million domestic pet dogs in this country, and the poodle is the seventh most numerous breed. There are millions of poodles out there.

As a matter of fact, purebred poodles are among the 4 million to 6 million dogs euthanized in America each year because homes can't be found for them. America's dog and cat problem is not species extinction; it's overpopulation.

Well, to anyone tempted to respond in that manner, let me clarify for you what the Endangered Species Act is really all about. You see, the number of poodles living in domestic captivity doesn't count. Once we have succeeded in getting the noble poodle listed as threatened or endangered -- as it most certainly is, in the traditional range of its wild habitat -- all that will matter is the number of wild, untouched acres set aside. Once you've developed a house and a yard and put two happy poodles in it, for purposes of the federal ESA, you might as well have just shot the pups, because you have destroyed wild poodle habitat, and we are going to count your poodles as "taken," meaning dead. In fact, we may have to take steps to stop you from allowing them to breed, up to and including "euthanizing" your captive slave dogs, since "Unlimited breeding of an endangered species in captivity is something the community has to look into."

You think I'm making this up? Here in Las Vegas, Clark County's Desert Conservation Program -- a well-paid division of the county Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management -- is currently going hat in hand to the appropriate chain of federal agencies, asking "permission" to amend the so-called Desert Tortoise (and 77 other critters, including bugs and mosses) Habitat Plan, with the purpose of "allowing" the county to develop an additional 215,000 acres of adjoining stinking desert in the decades to come.

The theory, you see, is that any human activity which "moves dirt" destroys tortoise habitat, and cannot be allowed unless developers obtain federal permits for the "incidental take" of tortoises (regardless of whether a single tortoise is seen or killed), including a fee or fine of $550 per acre, which is used to build "tortoise fences" to keep the turtles from crossing the road to get to water, and so forth.

Wow. Under that theory, there must be practically no tortoises left in the Las Vegas Valley, which has now been heavily developed for decades. Right?

Actually, officials have rounded up more than 10,000 of the little buggers, right here in the Vegas Valley, turning them over to the Fish and Wildlife's Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, where they and their progeny are farmed out as pets, or for experiments. Those that aren't euthanized for having runny noses, you understand. Marci Henson of the county's Desert Conservation Program estimates about 2 percent of the poor little "threatened" reptiles get "euthanized."

("Run, little tortoises, run!" as former County Commissioner Don Schlesinger once put it.)

Sometimes, on a Saturday morning, I drive around this town, visiting garage sales. I've seen quite a few kids playing with their desert tortoises in their driveways. Cliven Bundy, the last cattle rancher in Clark County, tells me when the Kern River pipeline people came through and did a federally mandated tortoise population density study as part of their required Environmental Impact Statement, they found several times more tortoises per acre on the lands where the Bundys have water tanks for their cattle than they found in the hot, dry desert -- and literally 10 times the tortoise population density -- the highest densities recorded -- right here in the Las Vegas valley.

This isn't even counterintuitive. Early explorers found precious few tortoises in the dry Mojave desert, where the toothless reptiles struggle to find enough water and edible tender shoots. The Spaniards found only shells and thought them extinct. These animals developed in an ecosystem which had large toothy vegetarians -- deer, elk, whatever -- to crop back the brush, a role now filled only by cattle.

In the 1920s and 1930s, tortoise populations swelled artificially as ranchers ran cattle on these lands and killed the tortoises' main predators, the coyote and the raven.

As "environmentalists" have succeeded in running the ranchers off the land, the cattle have vanished, no one is any longer shooting coyotes and ravens, and thus tortoise populations have slumped back to historically normal levels.

Are there now more tortoises, or fewer, than when cattle grazed the land? How many tortoises are there? Fish and Wildlife is still working to establish a "baseline population number," Ms. Henson replies.

Twenty years after the tortoise received an "emergency listing" as a threatened species in 1989, they're still trying to establish a "baseline"? So when will they be able to tell us whether we have enough new tortoises, bred in their joyous cattle-free paradise, to de-list the species and allow humans to get back to developing our land as we see fit? Eighty years from now? Eight hundred?

Twenty years and no one has done a simple control experiment, releasing 300 tortoises on Cliven Bundy's grazed land with its water tanks and cattle, and another 300 tortoises on an adjoining dry, desolate and cattle-free valley, coming back three years later to count which valley has more tortoises and which seem healthier?

All this bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo is based on the presumption that any "human interference" with the dry and stinking desert ruins it as tortoises habitat, when the truth -- that tortoises actually do much better with people around, just like roaches and pigeons and hummingbirds -- stares us right in the face.

Cue "Thus Spake Zarathustra." Remove the blindfold, please. No, Mr. Tortoise, you haven't died and gone to heaven. We call this ... a golf course.

If they really wanted more tortoises, any old desert rat can tell them the solution is to shoot ravens and coyotes. Mind you, I'm not recommending that. We've got plenty of tortoises right now.

These people don't care about tortoises -- they're euthanizing them, for heaven's sake. The tortoise -- or whatever moss or bug or flycatcher eventually takes it place -- is merely a stand-in, a cat's paw, to give federal bureaucrats and their lunatic green pals complete control over development of private land in the West.

Just how fecund are those 10,000 captive tortoises, I asked Marci Henson.

"Oh, we think a lot of those ten thousand were pet tortoises, we believe as few as 2 percent may have actually been wild."

How can they tell -- the turtles came in wearing little knitted sweaters and booties? They keep trying to sit up and shake hands?

Besides, Ms. Henson said, quite seriously, "Unlimited breeding of an endangered species in captivity is something the community has to look into."

"To stop it?" I asked.

"Yes," said Marci Henson.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of the books "The Ballad of Carl Drega" and "The Black Arrow." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com/ and http://www.lvrj.com/blogs/vin/.

 

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