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Friday, August 30, 2013

Desert Tortoises Buried by Spending Cuts

When Congress failed to reach an agreement on deficit–reduction legislation last year, we knew budgetary issues and sequestration cuts could negatively affect animals at some point—from the number of inspectors enforcing the law at puppy mills and research labs to the number of wild horses treated with a fertility control vaccine to prevent round-ups. We just didn’t know who would take the first big hit. Now we know one of them is the threatened Mojave desert tortoise.

The recent news of the upcoming closure of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center near Las Vegas shines a light on the real world impact the economic crisis and congressional gridlock can have on animals.

Sulcata TortoiseThe center was opened in 1993 to house desert tortoises saved from the path of development and to use those animals to aid in the recovery of this threatened species. Built on Bureau of Land Management property, the center is partially funded by the mitigation fee housing developers pay the BLM when they disturb critical tortoise habitat.

During the Nevada housing boom, mitigation fees freely flowed, helping to fund the rescue and research center’s $1 million annual budget. But when the foreclosure crisis hit the Sun Belt, the funds that once sustained the center dried up. Because sequestration also led to a slashing of the BLM’s budget, the agency was not able to fill the gaps for the tortoise program. With few other options, the center is set to close its doors in late 2014.

As a result, new plans must be made for the 1,400 desert tortoises currently residing at the center. The FWS plans to release the healthy tortoises under its care into the wild in designated areas that will contribute to the recovery of the species over the next year. But the future of those tortoises injured or otherwise deemed not fit for release is still up in the air.

The HSUS has offered its assistance in addressing the short-term placement and long-term facility issues the tortoises are facing. Animal advocates are looking to help identify sustainable and humane solutions—such as getting the non-releasable tortoises to accredited zoos and sanctuaries and keeping them out of the inhumane exotic pet trade—as well as supporting the recovery of this important species. 

Protected or not, no more animals should suffer because of the banking and foreclosure crisis. Desert tortoises can live up to 100 years, and those lives shouldn’t be cut short because the government and the financial sector fell short of their duties.

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