EDITORIAL: Turtles waxed: Conservation effort again goes awry

The latest nonsense involving the valley’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center would be funny if it didn’t involve federal ineptitude, wasted public money and dead reptiles.

For the uninitiated, the desert tortoise has for more than two decades received federal protection as a threatened species. That protection has imposed huge burdens on landowners and anyone else who wants to put the barren Mojave Desert to a productive use. During the valley’s boom years, developers paid millions of dollars in fees to support the conservation center, where builders could take any tortoises they found.

If anything, the center’s existence has proved that tortoises aren’t threatened at all. Untold tens of thousands of tortoises are kept as pets. As a result, the conservation center is practically overflowing with the shelled creatures. There are so many — about 1,400 — that the center no longer accepts unwanted pets and strays. The center might as well post a sign outside that reads, “Please stop overwhelming us with tortoises, so that we can research how to save them.”

Because of the Great Recession, the development fees that funded the conservation center have dried up. So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to close the center at the end of next year.

Ideally, the service would close the center next week. Working through local animal welfare organizations, the government could promote a massive adopt-a-thon for the tortoises to ensure they’re cared for. But that would make too much sense. You see, the Endangered Species Act requires the government to take all necessary measures to preserve creatures in their natural habitats. Pet populations don’t count. In fact, they’re to be discouraged. Better to have an extinct species than one that thrives in backyards outside federal oversight.

And so last week, it was reported that the Fish and Wildlife Service, upon closure of the conservation center, would dispose of surplus tortoises by euthanizing them. This plan was reported by the fringe, fly-by-night outfit known as … The Associated Press.

Such an outrageously stupid approach drew immediate condemnation and public backlash, which led to speedy denials from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Of course the government wouldn’t kill the reptiles, unless they were suffering greatly. The actual plan, we’re now assured, is to release more and more of the tortoises into the wild over the next 18 months.

In other words, kill them.

Previous tortoise releases have amounted to death marches for the poor creatures. Recall that in 2008, when about 770 tortoises from Fort Irwin were placed in the California desert, about 90 percent of them quickly were devoured by predators. And previous releases found parts of the desert were so saturated with tortoises that relocated reptiles sometimes fought to the death with their native peers over turf.

This isn’t a species that needs to be saved. It needs to be left alone. Close the conservation center. Let the public adopt the captive tortoise population. The last thing any tortoise wants to hear, after retreating inside its shell, is “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.”

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