Fear The Turtle

By John Liang / August 18, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Environmentalists are weighing the possibility of new litigation against the Army in light of a recent environmental assessment that proposes to re-start a controversial project that would relocate more than 1,000 desert tortoises, an endangered species, to make way for expanded training at the Army's Ft. Irwin, CA, National Training Center, Defense Environment Alert reports this week:

The Army last year suspended an initial translocation project at its National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA, after it saw a high mortality rate among translocated desert tortoises. A spokesman for Ft. Irwin says the predation number was a surprise. The Army also had been sued by environmentalists in 2008 over the project, but the suit was dismissed after the Army and other federal agencies reinitiated consultation under the Endangered Species Act over the impacts of the relocation project, and the Army agreed to revise its recovery plan for the tortoise.

Now the Army is looking to fulfill plans to relocate the tortoises from two training expansion areas at the NTC. But predation is an issue environmental activists believe should still be addressed under the latest relocation project.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) late last month released a draft environmental assessment analyzing the impacts of an Army plan to translocate desert tortoises from the Southern Expansion Area (SEA) and Western Expansion Area (WEA) of the NTC to BLM and other Army-managed lands. The SEA is approximately 24,000 acres of new training land, while the WEA is approximately 70,000 acres of new training property. The Army wants to transfer the desert tortoises out of the new training areas in order to protect them from training impacts. The military intends to use the new areas for both air and ground training. Both of these areas had been designated as critical habitat in 1994 for the desert tortoise. In order to allow the training use, the Army must comply with certain conservation measures and conditions.

Inside the Army reported in July 2008 that the service has planned to add 5,000 soldiers and increase training rotation capacity to 12 at Ft. Irwin, and prepared a draft programmatic environmental impact statement considering the “impacts associated with the stationing and training of new soldiers at Fort Irwin,” according to a June 2008 Federal Register notice. As ITA reported:

The move stems from an April 2002 record of decision that opted to go forward with the 30-year phased implementation of the service’s transformation from a division-based force to a modular, brigade-based Army.

“The Army leadership determined that the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) should transform over a period of several years to become a MultiComponent Heavy Brigade Combat Team (HBCT), deployable throughout the world,” the notice explains. “Other smaller units would also be stationed at Fort Irwin.” The document, dated June 27, explains that training rotations would increase, as would the number of soldiers stationed at the base.

“Additional cantonment and range construction would be necessary to support the increase in rotations and troops,” it adds.