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First desert tortoises released into wild at Marine base

Under the watchful eye of researchers, a 9-year-old desert tortoise is ready to venture out into the world.

“We want our babies to be successful in the wild, but for them to become successful they have to become adults,” said Dr Brian Henen, an ecologist with the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs office.

The tortoise is among 35 released from the Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, or TRACRS. The 6-acre facility began in 2006 as partnership with UCLA and theMarine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

“This is the first year we are releasing tortoises. This is the ninth year we’ve had TRACRS in action,” said Henen.

A tortoise that fits in the palm of your hand is just about 4-years-old, too young and small to be released in the wild.

“When they are first born they are really, really small and vulnerable to predators, that’s ravens. Even when they are 4-years-old, you can see they are not very large and also the shell is a little bit soft and that allows the predators to get them,” said Henen.

Biologists keep them safe until their shell starts to harden and they can defend themselves in the wild. That takes about eight or nine years.

“Right now we have 420 juveniles,” said Henen. “Captive rearing helps us bolster here in Sand Hill, but it also provides research we can use but also other folks can use.”

It also provides a moving experience for those who visit.

“I sure didn’t expect to encounter this little love that is for sure,” said Beth Bogue, field representative for Assemblyman Chad Mayes. “To hold this little life, it feels great and he is so inquisitive and it just goes to show you how creative nature is.”

The drought made this facility even more crucial to helping the species decimated by disease over last several decades.

“In drought years females may decide not to produce eggs because they are trying to conserve resources to survive,” said Henen.

They also grow much slower, but recent rain has improved conditions in the wild.

“We hope that next year might be a good year or an average year or hopefully an El Nino year,” said Henen.

Now it’s time for 35 tortoises to survive in the desert, to make a home in a wild that is off limits to the public and protected by Marines. These Marines also help researchers spot the animals while training nearby.

“Thanks to the Marines and the other military out here we have the opportunity to do this,” said UCLA research professor Dr. Kenneth A. Nagy.

Thanks to an electronic tracker, these tortoises won’t be entirely be on their own.

“Margaret is out there now tracking that juvenile staying far enough away so she doesn’t influence it’s behavior so we can account for all of this effort to see if it really works,” said Nagy.

Biologists are also in the process of locating and tagging about 1,000 desert tortoises believed to be in the base’s planned expansion area. They’re working on finding other areas to safely relocate them to. Once the final plans are approved the translocation effort is expected to happen sometime next spring.

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