Shell Game

Ravens? Yahoos? Disease? After shelling out $100 million, you'd think we'd know what is wiping out the California desert tortoise.

I. The Rescuers

To reach Bay Area Turtle and Tortoise Rescue, drive to Castro Valley, make a few cuts through suburban side streets, and then park in front of Gary and Ginger Wilfong’s home. It’s in their backyard.

The Wilfongs have been taking in shelled reptiles for more than a decade and, love them as they do, truth be told, they sometimes tire of the responsibility. Many types of turtles can live beyond a hundred years, and when owners purchase the cute little critters in pet stores — usually at the behest of a pleading child — they seldom consider the retirement plan. “People call us all the time, asking, ‘Do you want my turtle?'” Ginger said one recent afternoon as she walked through her cluttered home. “I say, ‘No, I don’t want your turtle, but I’ll take it.’ If it’s between giving it to me and setting it loose into the wild, then I’ll take it. I have a policy: I’ll take in any turtle.”

She headed toward the sliding glass door leading to the patio, maneuvering around piles of gadgets left out by her electrician husband, accompanied by the crowing of two parrots from the living room. “Now watch this,” she said, readying both hands on the door handle. “As soon as I begin to open it, they’ll feel the vibration and jump into the water.” Outside, a dozen red-eared sliders lounged along the rim of a three-hundred-gallon pond Gary had installed a few years back. The moment Ginger used all of her five-foot frame to yank open the door, which really could’ve used a little grease, turtle tails and hind legs flipped up and disappeared into the dark water. “See?” she said. “They know we’re coming. They’re smart guys. They can feel it.”

Over the phone, Ginger had estimated there were more than 200 turtles roaming her yard. But counting the sliders now bobbing up to the pond’s surface, that still left more than 180 to account for. “Okay, okay,” she said, sensing it was time to deliver the payoff. “Now let’s take a look at the big guys.”

We walked toward a tall wooden gate where she unlatched a hook and swung the door wide open. Before us stretched a half-acre of green lawn, mud puddles, boxes of shrubbery lining the fences and, in the middle of the plot, a large shed that looked like a greenhouse. Taking the first step into the silent field, the mood was placid, eerily still. Then, slowly, the eyes and bodies of dinosaurs began emerging from the background into clear focus, like a scene from Jurassic Park. Ginger had guessed correctly. There were turtles everywhere.

In the distance a green sulcata that could have been mistaken for a parked VW Bug lifted its head momentarily to gaze at its visitors. Another mound of tortoiseshell moved slightly, craned its short neck toward the gate, then returned to its afternoon snack of cabbage balls. A smaller guy, the size of an army helmet, rambled along a path of stepping stones up to our feet and hissed. “That’s Lawrence,” Ginger said, chuckling. “He’s probably forty years old. He’s a real bulldozer. He’ll knock Gary down if Gary’s not paying attention.”

The Wilfongs have inherited members of more than 25 species from all over the world, an amazing tally considering the only species indigenous to the Bay Area is the common pond turtle. When US Customs officials make a bust at the port, hauling in exotic reptiles, they call the Wilfongs, as do Parks District managers who come across a Russian tortoise traipsing through Tilden. The couple neither breeds nor sells turtles for profit, nor do they pander for donations. They simply work as a liaison for the reptiles, easing their unnatural transition from the wild to captivity. “I had to stop naming them,” Ginger later confessed, sitting at her kitchen table. “I realized once I gave them a name that meant they were never leaving. But with some of these guys, they’re around here so long, you just end up giving them a name.”


II. The Auditors

According to scientists, at least, one species the Wilfongs deal with regularly may not be around so long. Although the couple took in its first turtle in 1961, it wasn’t until 1989, Gary says, “when we really went crazy.” That was the year California’s few tortoise rehabilitators were suddenly given a whole new level of responsibility: Desert biologists in Southern California reported that a deadly virus was sweeping the state’s only other indigenous species, the Mojave Desert tortoise. Scientists had already been claiming the desert was suffering rapid habitat degradation at the hands of off-road vehicle enthusiasts and the appetites of wandering cattle herds allowed to graze at will; this grim new discovery only seemed to punctuate their findings.

Acting on the scientists’ information, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared “emergency status” for the desert tortoise, and put it on the Endangered Species List, triggering the massive protections that accompany the designation. Lawmakers and government land managers jumped into overdrive, pushing legislation to outlaw the harming or poaching of desert tortoises and roping off millions of acres of desert across Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Recreational desert users were ushered out of the reptile’s path, and when they protested, were cast as villains in the Save-the-Tortoise narrative.

Yet despite the restrictions, more and more tortoises were turning up sick, and no one knew it better than the Wilfongs. With sniffling noses, puffy eyelids, and swollen tongues, the animals arrived via Fish and Wildlife by the dozen.

Over the decades, the Wilfongs have quietly nurtured hundreds of sick desert tortoises, but they’ve also had many die. “I don’t mind that they die here,” Ginger said. “At least they get some nice meals and a good place to sleep in the final days.”

Working at ground level, the Wilfongs may have assumed that somewhere in the larger bureaucratic machine designed to save the desert tortoise from extinction, things were proceeding with just as much care and diligence. But that assumption would have been wrong: Six months ago, the save-the-tortoise movement suffered a stunning indictment by the US Government Accounting Office in a report that called out the campaign’s ineptitude. To date, federal auditors say, the government has spent more than $100 million to preserve the reptile while closing off a staggering 6.4 million acres of public lands for its critical habitat, and all to unknown results. “It’s frustrating,” said Trish McClure, primary author of the GAO report. “We should get something from the money we’re investing in research here. But we just don’t know what we’d like to know, considering the amount of money we’re spending.”

The scientists, auditors lament, have changed their counting methodologies twice, and still haven’t been able to establish an accurate baseline number. Now, as accurately as anyone can tell, there are “thousands” of desert tortoises. Due to the imprecise work, it may take another 25 years (a full tortoise generation) to get a clear picture of how many are really out there. “Unless these shortcomings are addressed,” the report stated, “questions will persist about whether the current protection and recovery efforts and actions are working and are necessary, and even whether the species continues to be threatened with extinction.”

Certainly, there’s little dispute that tortoises are dying off at a higher than normal rate. But until solid data is developed — despite the oft-repeated statement of tortoise enthusiasts that populations have declined by 90 percent since the 1980s — nobody can legitimately claim to know in any detail what’s happening with the population.

The government auditors have shaken up the desert tortoise landscape: Biologists are being forced to rethink their data-gathering methods; ranchers who removed their herds are fuming (according to the report, nobody bothered to study whether the grazing ban has affected tortoise habitat); California land officials are renewing efforts to implement a long-delayed recovery plan for the creatures; and finally, the off-road vehicle people are rallying to get their trails reopened.

David Hubbard, an attorney representing business owners whose livelihoods rely on the recreational use of the desert, sued the federal government last month, reasoning that the chief enemy of the desert tortoise all along has been the deadly Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, not off-road vehicles. On this point, many biologists would feel compelled to agree, if grudgingly. He believes the save-the-tortoise campaign has purposely downplayed the spread of the virus, because to give the disease top billing would be to acknowledge that desert users aren’t to blame.

“They know how this disease got started and who spread it, and they know it wasn’t us,” Hubbard noted in an interview a few days after filing his suit. “We enjoy the desert, too. We love it. We don’t want to see tortoises die, either. But they’ve been at this thing since 1989, and in all this time they’ve done next to nothing to stop URTD. Instead, they’ve spent all their money — our money, $100 million of our money! — pushing people out of the desert to make way for the tortoise, even though the GAO report shows they don’t know if it’s had any benefit to the tortoise.”

The latest round of legal bickering has had little effect on the Wilfongs’ mission. They’re too busy tending to their reptilian charges back in Castro Valley to get caught up in the politics. That’s not to say Ginger doesn’t have her opinions. But when the animal-rights activists prod her to speak out on the horrors committed against tortoises, as they do regularly, she graciously declines. “We see the tortoises come in, and we take care of them,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

But really, it’s not.


III. The Scientist

In the summer of 1988, on a desolate patch in Kern County, a student working for desert biologist Kristin Berry came across a tortoise whose nose was streaming fluid. The student wasn’t sure what to make of the ailing reptile, but jotted down the symptoms. Within a few weeks, tortoises further south near the Salton Sea began turning up with unexplainable lesions on their shells. Berry and other tortoise experts had feared this was coming: As early as 1972, they’d learned of a fatal virus spreading among tortoises in captivity. If it were to jump into the wild, it could devastate the species. “Up until then,” she recalled, “we hadn’t seen this in wild populations.”

Berry grew up in the Mojave and recalls a day during her childhood when her father brought home a desert tortoise. “I very strongly remember thinking they shouldn’t be held captive,” she said. Berry eventually got her Ph.D at Cal Berkeley and returned to the desert, where she has become the leading authority on the species. She is also a leading advocate of keeping the desert unmolested by off-road vehicles.

Until Berry’s research group listed the first sick tortoise in the late 1980s, it seemed the species hadn’t yet faced a fight it couldn’t win. The slow-moving reptile has existed for roughly eighteen million years, and its resilience through the violent prehistoric changes in the Northern American continent still leaves experts in awe. Most chelonians living west of the Continental Divide perished ages ago, unable to withstand the hellish desert climates. The tortoises, however, developed a scheme for survival: a tough shell to crack and a sophisticated digestion system allowing it to store enough liquid for an entire year on small bits of vegetation. It wasn’t like the animal needed much water: Standing about six inches tall and a foot long, it moved about as quickly and vigorously as a paperweight.

Soon after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, desert biologists like Berry began lobbying for the creature’s listing. The encroaching exurbs of Southern California were the easiest threat to notice: Not only were roadkills reported each time a new highway was paved, but power lines and landfills built to accommodate human habitation became convenient perches and breeding grounds for ravens, the tortoise’s main predator.

Yet to get a species listed, you have to prove it is in dire decline, and tortoises are difficult to count. They are scattered across a wide swath of territory spanning four US states and two Mexican states, and spend five months of the year burrowed underground, where they also spend most of their waking hours. To count such an elusive creature, researchers decided to mark off a number of single one-square-mile plots, study each for sixty to ninety days, and then extrapolate their findings.

The method seemed cheaper and far more practical than finding scores of volunteers and then combing large areas of desert in homicide-like evidence lines. But it had an inherent and scientifically fatal flaw: Suppose you picked a square mile that was unusually well populated or, for that matter, entirely unpopulated? The desert is vast, and nobody really understands how the species is distributed. “It’s not like counting condors,” Berry said, “where you can count every last one of them.”

Over the course of a decade, Berry reported drastic population drops within her study plots. In some plots where 150 tortoises had been observed, only ten could be accounted for. Some of the evidence was fairly clear: Empty shells, especially those of hatchlings, seemed like the work of hungry ravens. Some was less so: Vegetation left untouched suggested, but certainly didn’t prove, that the tortoise was no longer around to eat it. And there was often difficulty in establishing a cause of death, or determining how long a found shell had been there.

Presented with a decade’s worth of research and lobbying by desert environmentalists, President Ronald Reagan’s Interior Department acknowledged in 1983 that the tortoise warranted a listing, but contended that it wasn’t a priority. A few years later, however, severe declines on a plot in Utah prompted the government to admit tortoises in that area were indeed threatened.

The plotting strategy was certainly problematic, but it was the only choice given the vast terrain and spotty funding, Berry said. “It was what we could do with the money we were given.” She would have conducted a range-wide dragnet if she’d had the financial support. So to give the plots some validity, she arranged the patches on various terrains: Some were placed in washes and others in hills; some near civilization, and others far out in acres that saw no human visitors except for the researchers.

It took until 1989 for the feds to take action. Meanwhile, Berry and her California colleagues were finding more and more sick tortoises, and became convinced Upper Respiratory Tract Disease had finally taken its leap from captivity to the wild. According to Berry’s research, symptoms were now turning up in the Western Mojave, the Las Vegas area, and the Beaver Dam Slope along the Utah-Arizona border.

Facing lawsuits from environmental activists, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the tortoise endangered in August 1989, spurred by Berry’s conclusions that URTD was ultimately threatening to lead the reptile into extinction. The agency’s hastily written report was to the point: “An emergency situation in the form of a recently documented outbreak of a virulent desert tortoise upper respiratory tract disease syndrome has been identified, and has caused significant declines to certain tortoise subpopulations and threatens to become pandemic in subpopulations already stressed as a result of habitat degradation, predation, and other factors. Because of the need to make federal funding available to combat the respiratory disease syndrome, the Service finds that good cause exists to make this emergency rule effective upon publication.”

Papers published by Berry and her colleagues at the time surmised that the disease was being spread primarily through the ignorance of human turtle owners. The desert tortoise had always been an easy enough souvenir to pluck from the desert — Berry’s own father could attest to that — but in the late 1980s, idealistic animal rights groups turned up the rhetoric and went on campaigns of releasing captive tortoises and turtles back into the wild, dumping them in places like Golden Gate Park and Lake Merritt. The reptiles were also bought from pet stores and Chinatown markets and then released in midnight runs, some in places as far south as the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area in the Western Mojave. The problem became so rampant that managers of the tortoise reserve began publishing pamphlets asking pet-store owners to remind customers of the harm of freeing the creatures.

It was after winning the “endangered” listing, the Jeep contingent argues, that scientists and activists began rallying to push them off tortoise territory, purposely confusing the disease and habitat issues in the public’s opinion. This latest threat to the tortoise, they say, only helped the activists cast the off-roaders as a bunch of insensitive yahoos. Biologists published articles attempting to prove how off-road vehicles have introduced new toxins to the habitat, thereby conveying the obvious: gas and oil and tons of fast-moving metal aren’t good for anyone, much less wildlife.

Asked plainly if it’s the tortoise owners who are to blame for bringing this plague upon the wild population, Berry answered carefully. “That is one hypothesis,” she said. “The second hypothesis is that it was always there. We just found it.

“But yes,” she continued. “The evidence does favor the first hypothesis. But I don’t know that we’ll ever know that answer for sure.”


IV. The Off-Roader

Whether or not tortoise scientists truly understand what’s going on is an important distinction for people like Michelle Cassella, who live and play in the desert and feel wrongly accused for its demise and punished for acts they say they haven’t committed. Riding her Kawasaki KX-250, Cassella was a dirt-bike champ from 1994 through 1997 and is now the president of the California League of Off Road Voters. She has explored the desert for decades as a camper, and the suggestion that she’s violating it offends her. “The desert is as beautiful in the summer as it is in the winter,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to be blamed for the destruction of the desert — especially when it’s not true.”

Cassella estimates that closing off land for the tortoises has shut down some 60 percent of the trails she once rode, leaving today’s riders “clustering on top of each other,” as she puts it. According to a study prepared by an off-road lobbying group, the industries associated with the off-road lifestyle generated $3 billion in business in 1996. That number may have doubled by now, authors of the study now say, with more campers and riders looking for a playground at the very same time the turf accessible to them is shrinking. The vast tortoise preserve could expand to ten million acres if the government ultimately purchases all of the critical habitat it has identified, and yet the feds have no plans to set aside additional trails for people like Cassella.

Her attorney, David Hubbard, knows it’s a stretch to suggest off-roading doesn’t affect the desert’s environment, and that’s why he’s quick to note that his clients never had access to more than 7 percent of the land marked for the tortoise. That, he says, means 93 percent of the habitat is free of off-road vehicles, and yet the biologists say there’s still a tortoise crisis. In a letter last month to the federal Bureau of Land Management, Hubbard extended this point: “Ultimately, the [environmental report] is forced to concede that [off-highway vehicle] impacts on the desert tortoise are uncertain and may be negligible.”

The lawsuit he filed in Cassella’s behalf may not open up any lands in the near future, but ultimately Hubbard hopes to convince the public, using Berry’s own work to bolster his argument, that the virus is the true villain, and continuing to close Jeep and dirt-bike trails fails to address the problem. “I want to make it a more politicized issue,” he says. “Congress should know what they’re getting for their money. The strategy to save the tortoise has been wrongheaded: It’s been to close off the land; that’s it. And meanwhile tortoises continue to get sick and die off.”


V. The Bureaucrat

At the tense intersection between environmentalists like Kristin Berry and off-roaders like Michelle Cassella sits Ray Bransfield, a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist whose job is to implement the ambitious 1994 recovery plan for the tortoise. Tacked to the wall of Bransfield’s Ventura, California, office is a newspaper clipping that explains how in 1995 the government spent $39.7 million to help preserve endangered species, while American moviegoers spent five times that amount on popcorn. “Puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?” he quipped.

Bransfield has the handcuffed demeanor of a high school administrator who’d like to change the world but has been discouraged, finally worn down from all the waiting for funding to arrive. In the case of the desert tortoise, the GAO blamed the lack of progress, in part, on poor communication between biologists bringing in research data from the study plots, Bureau of Land Management officials who were trying to acquire land for the habitat zone, and bureaucrats like Bransfield, who were overseeing the recovery. “There was very little in the GAO report that was news to me,” he said. “We just don’t have the resources to do what they’d like us to do.”

In their report, auditors praised the initial 1994 tortoise recovery strategy, calling it “one of the best ever conceived” for a threatened species. It was certainly one of the grandest: In the past six years, the BLM has spent $38 million just on real estate for the tortoise.

According to the GAO, the unrealized value of that land — from unsold water, timber, or power rights — will remain unknown, since the government effectively locked away the deeds following the purchases. Ranchers were hard hit by a grazing ban across 800,000 acres (the reptiles use shrubs for cover from ravens), which cost rural towns within the habitat an estimated 425 jobs. In addition, soldiers at Fort Irwin and Edwards Air Force Base are compelled to attend training that “raises their awareness about the status of the tortoise and teaches them what to do if they encounter a tortoise.”

To Hubbard, all of these actions are drastic, especially considering no one really knows the “status” of the tortoise, except that many of them are dying. The GAO report revealed that the most effective counting methodology may also be the most costly — virtually unaffordable these days — but it also pointed a finger at tortoise conservationists who squabbled over an acceptable methodology in the early years of the project. Essentially, the 1994 recovery plan called a counting method that was scrapped four years later for a strategy deemed more suitable.

But even by 2001 that “more suitable” strategy — recruiting volunteers to walk the desert in transects, recording tortoiseshells as they went along — still hadn’t gotten off the ground, and funding for the count simply dried up, the GAO notes. Bransfield’s office estimated that properly counting the tortoises across the entire 6.4 million acres would cost the government $1.5 million per year over 25 years. The count still hasn’t commenced — again, budget constraints.

Another reason the recovery plan’s progress has slowed to a turtle’s pace, Bransfield says, is that his office is perpetually responding to lawsuits. As soon as a group like the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity sues to get a species listed, the law compels his department to explain in detail why it wasn’t aware the species was in decline. After that, Bransfield and a consortium of biologists and scientists need to develop a recovery plan in which they identify a potential critical habitat for the creature. And once that critical habitat gets marked, he can expect lawsuits from property rights activists, builders’ associations, and off-road vehicle interests, all of which stalls preservation of the species for years. The bureaucrat figures he spends most of his work hours responding to the claims. To prove the point, he thumbed through the random papers atop his desk: “We just got sued last week over some plant or another, let me see here. … Oh yes, here it is.”

Bransfield knows all about Upper Respiratory Tract Disease and is as flummoxed as anyone on how to prevent it. Stopping the spread of a disease in the wild is thought next to impossible. As Kristin Berry notes, “When people say the government or researchers should do more to stop the disease, they don’t really know how difficult it is to control, much less stop.”

Bransfield knows far more about how to stop raven predation, which has always been a suggested tortoise-preservation method. In the early ’90s his troops were set to poison and shoot the birds to control their population and, optimistically, spare the tortoises from becoming supper. “We were all set up,” he said, allowing a pregnant pause. “Then we got sued.”

As a result, the raven population has increased tenfold, Bransfield estimates. Flocks numbering in the thousands have been seen swooping through Joshua Tree National Park. “We’ve taken an effective predator and done everything we possibly could do to increase its efficiency,” he said.

Since the GAO report hit his desk, Bransfield has been pushed to deal anew with the desert tortoise issue. Regional Fish and Wildlife brass are meeting to consider a new plan to localize the counting effort and establish a single office where scientists and land managers can bump shoulders and share information. Bransfield recently set up yet another committee to get the recovery plan moving, and a few weeks ago held a meeting to revisit “raven population management,” which again would entail shooting and poisoning the birds. The bureaucrat hardly sounded optimistic it would ever happen. Some plaintiff is always waiting in the wings. “We’ll see how it goes,” he said.


VI. The Victim

The end result of all the disease, lawsuits, politicking, bureaucracy, egos, and ignorance more often than not ends up in the Wilfongs’ backyard in Castro Valley.

A week ago, Ginger got a call from a pet store: Someone had found a desert tortoise walking down the street in San Leandro. Would she take it? Of course.

The reptile was smaller than most California tortoises, and had a pearly colored shell. “This is actually a cross between a California desert tortoise and a Texas desert tortoise,” Ginger said. “You know how everything in Texas is supposed to be bigger? Well, not their tortoises. They’re smaller.”

As soon as Ginger turned the tortoise on its back to determine its sex, a stream of urine sprayed out. “All over me, thank you very much,” she reported with a laugh. The frightened response, along with the creature’s long toenails, suggested this female had come from the wild. Best Ginger could tell, she was probably forty years old and hadn’t lived in captivity long, if at all. Sometimes, she said, people who take a tortoise from the desert and put it in their backyard are surprised to learn a few weeks later that their new pet has burrowed its way to freedom. Most important, Ginger noted as she eyed the reptile, there was no indication this tortoise had the virus.

But the Wilfongs have noticed fewer desert tortoises coming through in recent years. It’s hard to say exactly why. According to Bransfield, the Mojave has experienced a drought for the past two years, and with the multiplying ravens, who knows? Nobody. And therein, of course, lies the problem.

Ginger, for one, isn’t the type to jump anyone’s bandwagon. The animal rights activists who’ve approached her — the folks who try and pass laws banning turtle soup in Chinese restaurants — always assume she’ll want to speak out for them. “Who am I to judge what people eat?” she says, “I eat pork. People can eat turtles if they want. Just treat them nice while you’ve got them.”

The off-roaders have a point, too, she says: “The tortoises can feel the vibration of the roads, as long as they’re marked off, and the riders stay in their place. They’re smart enough to stay away.”

But there is one group for whom Ginger has little patience. The Wilfongs’ turtle refuge is the largest in the Bay Area, perhaps the state, so the couple sees the results of every turtle fad firsthand. She recalls during the 1980s when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze was in full swing, and parents lapped up the reptiles as pets for their kids just as Dalmatians get snapped up every time Disney rereleases its canine epic. With Pixar’s upcoming release of Finding Nemo, the couple is almost certain to have yet another crop dumped on them years down the road.

More than the ravens or the bureaucrats or the dirt-bikers, Ginger believes it is everyday people who should consider their role in this unfortunate cycle. “They buy turtles up as pets,” she says, “and years later when Junior goes off to college, they don’t know what to do with it, so they think, ‘I know, I’ll set them back into the wild.’ Maybe they’ve felt guilty for taking it out of the wild in the first place. Well they shouldn’t do that. They can’t go back. We wouldn’t have all this going on if they could.”

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