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Endangered Desert Tortoises Getting Sterilized Due to Unlikely Threat

Aug 18, 2014 06:35 PM EDT

In a sort of paradoxical situation, wildlife officials are taking the unusual step of sterilizing endangered desert tortoises, a species that they are in fact trying to protect.

US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials say the action is necessary to save this species from captive backyard tortoises, which are diverting resources from efforts to preserve the species in the wild, The Associated Press (AP) reports.

Tortoises in captivity threaten native populations because they can carry diseases with them when they escape or are released illegally in the desert.

Nevada law allows just one pet tortoise per household, but the measure adopted last year grandfathered in those who already had more.

Mike Senn, assistant field supervisor for the FWS in Nevada, said it can be "a really difficult issue" to explain to people, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, but the bottom line is that simply breeding more of the species won't save it in the long run. Techniques such as sterilization much be applied to improve and protect natural habitat and address threats in the wild.

The agency is inviting veterinarians from Nevada, Arizona, California and Utah to attend a first-ever desert tortoise sterilization clinic, a two-day event to teach new techniques that could help slow backyard breeding of the reptile.

More than 50 tortoises will be sterilized during the event.

Sterilizing tortoises is normally a complicated and invasive process, but Senn has come up with a new, low-risk and effective technique.

"For the males it's pretty straightforward," he explained to the Review-Journal, but the work is "a bit more involved" for females and must be done when they are in breeding condition, generally in July and August.

These desert tortoises will be available for adoption post-op. The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, which will provide some patients for sterilization, takes in as many as 1,000 unwanted tortoises each year. They also acquire as much as about $1 million in costs that otherwise could be spent on research and recovery work, Senn said.

These brown, hard-shelled reptiles have largely been wiped out, with numbers having decreased as much as 90 percent in certain areas, according to the organization Defenders of Wildlife. Recent estimates indicate that there are only about 100,000 individual desert tortoises remaining in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

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