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The Combat Center's Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, or TRACRS, provides ecologists and biologists a way to study and hatch desert toroises. The first set of hatchlings is slated to be released into the wild in 2012.

Photo by Jennie E. Haskamp

Combat Center protects tortoises

30 Jul 2010 | Cpl. R. Logan Kyle Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

The Combat Center is known for its vast ranges and capability to provide unparalleled training opportunities for deploying units. However, within the more than 900 square miles of training ranges, lives one of the desert’s most interesting survivors – the desert tortoise.

On April 2, 1990 desert tortoises were listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Dr. Brian Henen, an ecologist with the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs office, said several factors have contributed to the decline in desert tortoises.

“Habitat loss and an upper respiratory tract disease has been the main cause in the population decline,” said Henen, a native of Rockford, Ill. “When humans move into an area occupied by tortoises, they bring predators like ravens and coyotes along with them.”

But for nearly five years, personnel with the NREA have studied and observed desert tortoises at the Tortoise Research and Captive Rearing Site, or TRACRS, located near Camp Wilson in hopes of attributing to population recovery. The site provides experts the opportunity to closely monitor and study tortoises, as well as gain more knowledge of the respiratory tract infection.

Ravens and other birds of prey frequent the TRACRS in search of an easy meal, but a series of nets and fences protect the hatchlings, said Nora Bruennel, a biologist with NREA.

NREA, one of the leading proponents in the recovery of the desert tortoise population, also has an extensive training program all Marines and sailors must receive before participating in Enhanced Mojave Viper. Each year, more than 40,000 service members and nearly 1,000 civilian contractors receive the training. The training outlines the restrictions regarding the tortoises as well as the procedures to take when one is spotted while training.

“There are several areas throughout the installation where units must stick to the [main supply route] in order to not interfere with tortoises or their habitat,” Henen said. “If a unit sees a tortoise in the road or other dangerous area, they must call BEARMAT and follow the proper steps.”

Bruennel said having the opportunity to make an impact on a species such as the desert tortoise is one of the biggest reasons she loves her line of work.

“It’s a great feeling to know we may be able to contribute to a long-term success with the desert tortoise,” said Bruennel, a Cheyenne, Wyo., native. “Others could look at our research as a reference.”

With the help of the men and women with NREA, coupled with the cooperation of training units, the Combat Center may be able to significantly increase the amount of desert tortoises in the wild. Henen said the first group of tortoises is slated to be released from the TRACRS as early as 2012.

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms