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Desert tortoise
Sheldon the desert tortoise poses for a picture while being held by biologist Chris Herbst, Edwards Environmental Management, April 12. Sheldon currently lives in EM’s customer service area in Bldg. 2650A. Captive tortoises like Sheldon are available for adoption through EM’s Desert Tortoise Adoption Program. Under federal law, tortoises that are captive must remain captive to help prevent disease from being further introduced into the wild tortoise population. (Air Force photo by Kenji Thuloweit)
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Come out of your shell, adopt a desert tortoise

Posted 4/13/2011   Updated 4/13/2011 Email story   Print story


by Kate Blais
95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

4/13/2011 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Taking a break from burrowing in the ground to greet visitors, Bowser makes his way across the backyard to investigate as his curiosity gets the best of him.

Bowser is a desert tortoise adopted by the Hoover family as part of Edwards Environmental Management Desert Tortoise Adoption Program.

"I thought it would be a great experience for my family," said Toni Hoover, a base resident and tortoise foster parent. "I had heard that there was such a program and when I happened upon a waiting list at an environmental fair on base, I signed up."

According to Chris Herbst, an EM biologist and point person for the Desert Tortoise Adoption Program, the whole point of this initiative is to protect the base's desert tortoise population by keeping the captive tortoises separate from the wild population.

"Desert tortoises are listed as threatened species and are federally protected," said Mr. Herbst. "A cause for their endangerment is a condition called upper respiratory tract disease. They found out, after research, that one of the causes of it was from captive populations of desert tortoises. It's actually illegal to release captive tortoises back into the wild."

Before the tortoises were listed as threatened, it was a common practice for area residents to take them out of the desert and keep them as pets, which resulted in developing a large captive population, he said. Due to the long life span of the species - some live up to 100 years - residents often grew tired of their new pets and released them back into the wild. This inadvertently allowed the captive tortoises, which can carry disease, to interfere with the life cycles of the wild population and alter the local ecosystem.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visited the base in the early 1990s for an initial consultation on the tortoise as a threatened species, the agency deemed it necessary to keep documentation of every captive tortoise, registering each animal and maintaining a working list. In addition, each captive desert tortoise is tagged on the back of its shell with a nickel-sized number, Mr. Herbst said.

"That's kind of how the adoption program got started," Mr. Herbst said. "It's basically just a way for us to keep track of all the captive tortoises on the base, so that we know where they're at, what their current health statuses are and to make sure that adoptive parents in [base] housing are aware that they can't release it to the wild."

Word of mouth has served as the main means of communication between the adoption program and interested foster parents and families.

"It's a pretty easy process," said Mr. Herbst. "Interested individuals contact me and I get their basic information of who they are and where they live."

Although tortoises can be fostered off base, EM focuses on keeping the animals on base with base housing residents. "Once they're [desert tortoises] off base, they have to be registered with the state and it becomes up to the individual. But here on base we can oversee the adoption."

EM ensures that basic precautions are taken for fostering each adopted tortoise, such as building the tortoises' burrow in an enclosed yard and providing information on how to care for the animals.

There are currently seven registered adopted tortoises on base and two other captive tortoises available for adoption. When foster families have a permanent change of station, or can no longer care for the animal, the tortoise is returned to EM where interested individuals on a waiting list are contacted and given the opportunity to adopt.

"I like this program because we get to show people an animal that's important to us as biologists," Mr. Herbst said. "It offers them a unique insight by seeing them [desert tortoises] every day as they perform their natural behavior in their own back yard."

Ms. Hoover and her family seem to agree.

"We have greatly enjoyed Bowser," she said. "He's friendly and curious, walking up to anyone who comes into the backyard. And he even gets along fine with our dog."

For more information on adopting a desert tortoise, please contact the Environmental Management customer service desk at 277-1401.

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