The desert tortoise has lived in the American Southwest for 200 million years, but a federal budget cut has put the future of the ancient animal in peril.
As human population boomed in that region of the country, developers have worked to keep the tortoises safe and wildlife officials established a giant conservation reserve near Las Vegas. But now the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is running out of federal funding, forcing officials to close the center.
For close to half of the 1,400 desert tortoises living at the center, that means euthanasia.
Biologists are checking each desert tortoise to evaluate their health and make sure they have no signs of disease. Those deemed healthy enough will be released into the wild, but close to half of the tortoises are expected to be euthanized by the time the center closes at the end of 2014. Any new tortoises that arrive will also be put down,
“It’s the lesser of two evils, but it’s still evil,” US Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray told The Associated Press.
The desert tortoises are in a way victims of the housing crisis that struck the area. When the housing boom took place in the early and mid 2000s, money was abundant and developments frequent. But after the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, the $1 million annual budget for the center fizzled out.
Though the desert tortoise has been able to withstand the invasion of developers, they are still listed as a threatened species.
The closure of the center would not be too devastating to the overall population of the desert tortoise. There are an estimated 100,000 tortoises living in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, but this is a considerable drop from 60 years ago
In the 1950s the desert tortoise population averaged 200 individuals per square mile, but studies show there are now between 5 and 60 adults per square mile.