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After 9 years, tortoises to roam again at Twentynine Palms Marine base

Colonel and tortoise

Marine Col. James Harp prepares to release a 9-year-old tortoise into the wild at the base at Twentynine Palms. The reptile has a transmitter on its back.

(Marine Corps)

Like the reptile itself, the effort to reintroduce the desert tortoise into the sandy wilds of the Marine base at Twentynine Palms has not exactly been speedy.

Starting in 2006, the Marine Corps and UCLA began a program to hatch baby tortoises for a return to a sprawling base where they were once common - until their numbers were greatly reduced by ravens, lizards and coyotes, as well as tanks and Humvees.

For nine years, the hatchlings - growing to almost 500 in number - remained in a five-acre protected zone, safe behind wire and netting, fed and carefully monitored.

But last month, 35 of the young tortoises were released, several at a time, with hopes that they are finally big and agile enough to survive and prosper.

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“It’s pretty significant,” Col. James Harp, the base chief of staff,  told the Marine Corps Times last week as he released the last of the 35: a 9-year-old code-named “2-4" and outfitted with a transmitter to track its movements.

The release was done at Sand Hill, a restricted area where tanks and Humvees are not allowed.

Attempts to reintroduce the desert tortoise - the state reptile of California - at other military bases have not gone as planned. Many were found pecked to death (biologists call young tortoises “walking ravioli’) or crushed by vehicles.

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The Marine Corps decided to wait longer to release the tortoises, in hopes of enhancing their survivability.

“We are trying to do things a little bit differently,”  base biologist Brian Henen told the Marine Corps Times. The success of the release is not assured, and Henen and others will be closely monitoring the data from transmitters.

Most of the hatchlings will remain behind.

So will Thelma and Louise, two semi-geriatric tortoises. Once they were pets of a general. Then he deployed to Iraq.

Now they serve as “ambassadors” to help explain the tortoise program to schoolchildren, visitors and grunts undergoing predeployment training.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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