The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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September 7, 2013

Support flows in for sick desert tortoises

LAS VEGAS (AP) — News that hundreds of threatened desert tortoises face euthanasia with the pending closure of a refuge near Las Vegas has generated a storm of reaction that has government officials scrambling to find alternatives and fielding offers from people wishing to adopt the reptiles or make donations.

The Associated Press reported this week that the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, which has sheltered thousands of displaced tortoises for 23 years, is scheduled to close in 2014 as funding runs out.

As the location just south of Las Vegas begins to ramp down, it is euthanizing tortoises deemed too unhealthy to return to the wild. Healthy tortoises won't be killed.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray estimated last week that about 50 percent to 60 percent of the 1,400 tortoises that live at the refuge were sick. Such tortoises cannot be released into the wild because they could infect their healthy wild brethren.

The estimate prompted a public outcry and debate among the various agencies connected to the refuge about the number of at-risk tortoises. It also forced the agency to issue a statement assuring the public that no healthy tortoises will be killed but saying that euthanasia is the only option for many of the animals because they are sick. Fish and Wildlife also assigned four people to field calls and put a message about the situation on its spokeswoman's answering machine.

Deputy Fish and Wildlife Service director Carolyn Wells said Wednesday that the 50 percent estimate of sick tortoises at the facility may be correct, but added that not all of the ailing animals will be killed. Some of them could potentially go to research facilities, she said, though she could not say how many, and she does not yet have commitments from biologists.

Fish and Wildlife operates the center in conjunction with the San Diego Zoo.

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