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San Diego Zoo: No euthanasia of threatened tortoises, despite AP report

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The private agency that manages a Nevada facility dedicated to conservation of the threatened desert tortoise has denied an Associated Press report that hundreds of the animals that are housed there may be euthanized in coming months as a result of reduced financial support from the federal government.

According to the AP report, which was published Sunday, the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center will be closed and the individual desert tortoises in its care will be killed.

The San Diego Zoo, which is the principal manager of the DTCC, denies that either of those outcomes is in the cards.

"Although we understand that, at any point, it's possible to lose federal funds, we manage the center and we don't have plans to do those things," Christine Simmons, a zoo spokesperson, said. "We remain committed to working with the desert tortoise."

Simmons explained that some tortoises - for example, those who are suffering from such severe medical problems that they cannot be rehabilitated or released back into the wild - may need to be euthanized.

"That's a small percentage of the overall population" served by DTCC, she said.

Gopherus agassizii are native to the deserts of western Arizona, eastern California, southern Nevada, and southwestern Utah. The reptile, which can grow to more than a foot in length, was added to the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 1990.

The desert tortoise is a member of a family of animals that has survived since the time of the dinosaurs. However, its desert habitat has been increasingly lost to development, especially in the Las Vegas valley. According to a website maintained by Conservation Centers for Species Survival, 90 percent of individuals in the species have been lost in the last three decades.

Only about 150,000 individuals of the species remain in the wild, according to the San Diego Zoo.

The DTCC is partially financed by funds provided by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages a large proportion of the public land within the desert tortoise's range.

BLM is allocating less money to the DTCC because it is receiving fewer dollars from habitat mitigation fees paid by developers under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

"The funds go up and down, depending on what’s happening with the economy," agency spokesperson Erica Haspiel-Szlosek said. She explained that housing development in the Las Vegas valley, a principal source of the money that flows into the habitat mitigation fund, has taken a hit during the recent recession.

Haspiel-Szlosek said that BLM wants, in any event, to stop caring for "former pet tortoises" and would cease support for the DTCC when the available section 7 funds run out sometime in 2014.

"Although we’ve been in that position for awhile, we don’t feel that’s part of what we do," she said.

About one thousand individuals are brought to the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center each year, according to the CCSS website.

A Washington Post article based on Sunday's AP report is here.

NOTE: A version of this story also appears at Natural Resources Today.

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