August 26, 2013 in Nation/World

Desert tortoises to be euthanized as funds run dry

Hannah Dreier Associated Press
 

LAS VEGAS – For decades, the vulnerable desert tortoise has led a sheltered existence.

Developers have taken pains to keep the animal safe. It’s been protected from meddlesome hikers by the threat of prison time. And wildlife officials have set the species up on a sprawling conservation reserve outside Las Vegas.

But the pampered desert dweller now faces a threat from the very people who have nurtured it.

Federal funds are running out at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, and officials plan to close the site and euthanize hundreds of the tortoises they’ve been caring for since the animals were added to the endangered species list in 1990.

“It’s the lesser of two evils, but it’s still evil,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray said during a visit to the soon-to-be-shuttered reserve at the southern edge of the Las Vegas Valley last week.

Biologists went about their work examining tortoises for signs of disease as Averill-Murray walked among the reptile pens. But the scrubby 220-acre refuge area will stop taking new animals in the coming months. Most that arrive in the fall will simply be put down, late-emerging victims of budget problems that came from the same housing bubble that put a neighborhood of McMansions at the edge of the once-remote site.

The Bureau of Land Management has paid for the holding and research facility with fees imposed on developers who disturb tortoise habitat on public land. As the housing boom swept through southern Nevada in the 2000s, the tortoise budget swelled. But when the recession hit, the housing market contracted, and the bureau and its local government partners began struggling to meet the center’s $1 million annual budget.

No more than 100,000 tortoises are thought to survive in the habitat where millions once burrowed across parts of Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada.

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