The desert tortoise, a federally protected species since 1989, faces a new threat in the quickly developing Las Vegas Valley--euthanasia.
Under a plan approved by county and federal officials that is due to take effect in early September, tortoises living on Las Vegas-area properties slated for construction will be removed to a Clark County animal care center. Those that are not adopted or relocated within five days will be killed by lethal injection.
Authorities, who say that adequate funding is unavailable to hold the tortoises longer, say that the odds are in favor of most of the reptiles being saved by concerned Clark County residents.
"It sounds worse than it actually is," said federal Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist Michael McGill on Thursday. "There's a pretty good chance they'll get adopted. Most of them will find a home."
The euthanasia plan is part of a larger compromise reached by county and federal officials that will help provide funds and land to preserve a natural habitat for more than 60,000 desert tortoises in more pristine areas of Nevada, authorities said.
For its part, Clark County has agreed to purchase the rights to use more than 400,000 acres of BLM land as a desert tortoise preserve. For the next three years, the land, much of it near Searchlight, would be off limits to off-road vehicles. Authorities would also ward off birds that eat thin-shelled baby tortoises.
More than $6 million would be provided to purchase the land rights and establish a trust fund from fees assessed to Las Vegas developers, who will also be charged $40 per tortoise for the housing at the animal care center.
In exchange, developers will be allowed to remove the tortoises from their own land.
Since 1989, it has been illegal to take, harm or kill a desert tortoise without a federal permit. In the Las Vegas valley, construction was forced to a standstill on properties where the tortoises resided.
Officials said the Las Vegas tortoises--as many as 3,000 are expected to be uncovered by developers in the next three years--will not be relocated in the Searchlight habitat. Doing so could result in overpopulation. Also, they said, many of the Vegas tortoises suffer from a respiratory disease that might be passed on to their rural cousins.
"This was the compromise we felt we had to come up with when there was a limited amount of money to be spent," said Betty Burge, chairwoman of the Tort Group, a Las Vegas-based tortoise conservation organization.
However, the agreement has stirred questions among other tortoise preservationists.
"That's saying that development will take place no matter what and development should be slowed down until you can figure out that 'what,' " said Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California Desert Committee. "You should find a place where you can put the tortoises. . . . I'm sure they have enough money to put researchers on it."
Palm Springs attorney Paul Selzer, who represented Clark County in the negotiations for the federal permit, said the rules occasionally led to bizarre situations.
"You ended up with this weird deal where two pieces of property were next to each other and one had a tortoise and one didn't. So one guy developed and what do you think happened to the desert tortoise next door? The neighborhood kids picked it up, or a dog got it, or it went in the street and got run over."
Selzer said that long-range efforts will be made to relocate Vegas-vicinity tortoises in the wild, but that it is not clear whether the tortoises can be moved successfully in the wild. "You can't just pick these dudes up and corral them and put them back in the desert," he said.