TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif.—U.S. Marines are taught to overcome obstacles with a minimum of help. But when some Marines prepared to charge a hill in a training exercise here a few months ago, they were forced to halt and radio the one man who could help them advance: Brian Henen, turtle expert.
The troops were "running up the hill and firing at targets," Mr. Henen said. "Some of the tortoises like the hill also. The Marines don't want to hurt the tortoise, so they call us and we go in and move it." Mr. Henen, who has a doctorate in biology, is part of a little-known army of biologists and other scientists who manage the Mojave desert tortoise and about 420 other threatened and endangered species on about 28 million acres of federally managed military land.
Mr. Henen often hustles out to remote parts of the Mojave Desert to make sure the threatened desert tortoise, which can weigh 10 pounds and live to be more than 50 years old, isn't frightened by charging troops. "When they get scared, they pee themselves," Mr. Henen said, referring to the tortoises. Since tortoises can go two years between drinks of water, an unplanned micturition can cause dehydration and even death. So Mr. Henen sometimes demonstrates to troops how he soaks the reptiles in a pool until they drink enough water to plod on with their lives.
Congress ordered the Defense Department to protect the flora and fauna on its lands under the 1960 Sikes Act. Today, the military works with agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service, a bureau of the Interior Department, to search for and protect animals, plants and archaeological sites on its bases.
Last year, the Department of Defense spent nearly $70 million on threatened and endangered species management and conservation, including $16.5 million on the red-cockaded woodpecker and just under $6 million on the desert tortoise. The outlays let biologists survey habitats, tag and track animals, build hatcheries and provide ecological training to thousands of troops.
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