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Las Vegas Plan to Kill Tortoises Under Review

September 07, 1991|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After an intense public outcry, Las Vegas officials are shying away from plans to kill desert tortoises not adopted or relocated within five days after being found on properties slated for development.

Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said Friday he will introduce a resolution at the next Board of Commissioners meeting to scrap the option of euthanizing tortoises. The board is likely to approve the proposal at its Sept. 17 meeting, commissioners said.

In the last week, Nevada government officials and conservationists have been deluged with hundreds of calls from tortoise-lovers throughout the nation angry at the possibility that healthy tortoises could be destroyed.

"The euthanasia option would likely have never been exercised," Woodbury said Friday. "But people are concerned and we need to ease their minds."

The possible lethal injection of tortoises is a small part of a complicated compromise worked out last month by developers, conservationists and government officials to allow construction to resume on Las Vegas-area sites inhabited by the endangered reptile.

Since the tortoise became a federally protected species in 1989, it has been illegal to take, harm or kill one without a federal permit. In the Las Vegas Valley, construction has been brought to a standstill on properties where tortoises live.

Under the compromise reached to win the permit, Clark County has agreed to buy the rights to use more than 400,000 acres of federal Bureau of Land Management property for a desert tortoise preserve. The land, primarily in the pristine Searchlight area, would be off limits to off-road vehicles and would be patrolled to ward off birds that eat thin-shelled baby tortoises.

More than $6 million in fees from Las Vegas developers would fund the natural habitat, which contains an estimated 60,000 desert tortoises. In return, developers would be permitted to remove tortoises from their own land, bring them to a county animal care center and begin construction.

As a last resort, the plan calls for the death of tortoises not adopted or relocated within five days after being dropped off at the center.

Many of the people who called to protest the possible killing of tortoises offered to come to Las Vegas to adopt threatened animals. They were told, however, that the plan only allows for Clark County residents to take them in.

The head of a Las Vegas-based tortoise conservation organization that will handle the adoptions said Friday that she has asked state wildlife officials to extend adoption rights to residents throughout Nevada. But Betty Bruge, chairwoman of the Tort Group, said she has no plans to work out a complicated agreement between California, Nevada and federal officials to allow Southern California residents to adopt Las Vegas tortoises.

With the fervent response to the possibility of euthanasia, Bruge said, "we have every reason to be optimistic" that new homes can be found for the tortoises.

Nevada officials estimate that up to 3,000 tortoises will be turned in by Las Vegas Valley developers during the next three years. In addition to adoptions, some of the tortoises may be relocated to rural areas not inhabited by tortoises.

Relocating the Las Vegas tortoises near Searchlight could result in overpopulation or spread a respiratory disease now plaguing many tortoises, experts said.

Paul Selzer, a Palm Springs attorney who represented Clark County in negotiations for the federal permit, said that the principal relocation sites being studied are islands in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

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