Real heroes in a half shell

Patagonia's Old Pas store helps protect desert tortoises—sentinels of the Mojave

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/29/2018

The tortoise population in the Mojave Desert is under threat. The main culprit? Humans.

That’s the message Cody Hanford, executive director of Transition Habitat Conservancy (THC), told a packed house on Nov. 9 at Patagonia’s store in Old Pasadena about threats desert tortoises face and ongoing conservation efforts. Founded in Ventura, Patagonia sells sustainable outdoor clothing and gear for travel, climbing, trail running, hiking, fly fishing and snow sports.

Last year, Patagonia’s Pasadena store selected THC as one of its grantees in its Action Works Retail Grants Program to help support their tortoise conservation efforts. The $9,500 annual grant goes toward THC’s native food gardens, a low-cost and low-effort habitat enhancement project that helps assist tortoise survival.

“Patagonia is an amazingly philanthropic corporation,” said Hanford. “They’re really showing how a business could be run. They do a request for proposals for grants and then the staff at that store looks through them and picks what they want. They want to be told of an environmental or climate problem, and what we might do to help it. They were not interested in funding a research grant; they want boots-on-the-ground impact, tipping the scales toward assisting the environment.”

Romeo Lodia, who runs the grants program at the Pasadena store, said each Patagonia store gets a fixed budget from the parent company per fiscal year, which runs from May through April. Organizations that apply through Patagonia’s website get funneled to the store closest to where they operate. Lodia said the Pasadena store selected THC for a grant last fiscal year and this fiscal year, which runs through April.

“It’s a democratic process,” Lodia said. “Each employee for that specific fiscal year gets to vote on the proposal and then we come up with a good number as far as the amount to give that group.”

Nearly Extinct

The native food garden project involves angling corrugated metal sheets on the desert floor to concentrate falling water into one area to trigger native annuals to bloom, a main staple in the tortoise’s diet, rather than invasive plants. The result is that the target area receives more moisture at up to a 10:1 ratio.

“We’re always thinking of these outside-the-box approaches to help the tortoises,” said Hanford. “To our knowledge, nothing like this has ever been done. We were going for a low-cost, low-management solution. It wouldn’t be that effective if we came up with this expensive, labor-intensive way to save the tortoises because who’s going to do it? The idea is to give the tortoises a leg up in these really trying times.”

Patagonia Pasadena’s 12 other grantees include local environmental organizations, such as the Arroyo Seco Foundation and the Arroyo & Foothills Conservancy. THC, headquartered in Piñon Hills near Palmdale on the other side of the Angeles National Forest from Pasadena, is a nonprofit organization that focuses on land acquisitions and habitat stewardship in the West Mojave Desert. The conservancy has acquired over 7,000 acres of land and works to improve thousands of additional acres in Southern California.

The California desert tortoise, or Gopherus agassizii, is the official state reptile and functions as a flagship, umbrella and indicator species found in southeastern California, western Arizona, southern Nevada and southwestern Utah. Along with Gopherus morafkai, found east of the Colorado River in Arizona and in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa, the two desert tortoise species inform scientists about the health of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts — and the prognosis isn’t good.

Before white settlers arrived in the Southwest, there were between 50 to 300 desert tortoises per square mile. Now there are fewer than five on average per square mile, and often less than that. The population has decreased by 90 percent since the 1980s. They are effectively extinct in certain historic territories such as the Victorville, Palmdale and Lancaster areas. They have been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1990, making it illegal to harass, collect or harm tortoises with penalties of up to $50,000 in fines and one year in prison. Military bases in the desert all have tortoise conservation programs because of its federally protected status.

“The tortoise tells us so much about the health of the desert,” said Dr. Kristin Berry, a research biologist and ecologist specializing in desert tortoises who works for the US Geological Survey. “It’s a sentinel of the well-being of our environment. The tortoise can be spokesanimal, so to speak, for the desert.”

Human Threat

Berry’s remarks were part of the Mojave Project, an experimental transmedia documentary led by Kim Stringfellow, an associate professor at San Diego State University, exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project is part of Fulcrum Arts’ EMERGE Program, formerly known as the Pasadena Arts Council and still based in Pasadena. Stringfellow wrote in a KCET article that Berry is “the person perhaps most credited with gaining protection of Gopherus agassizii under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Urbanization, mining, agriculture, livestock grazing, tract home subdivisions, military land use, industrial solar and wind installations and recreational spillover from greater Los Angeles is rampant [in the desert],” wrote Stringfellow. “The issue [of livestock on tortoise habitat land] ignited the 2014 Cliven Bundy standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, when rancher Bundy — who stopped paying grazing fees to the federal government in 1993, while continuing to illegally graze his cattle on public land — refused to remove them from the Gold Butte area of southern Nevada. The [Bureau of Land Management’s] planned roundup of his livestock backfired when armed militia groups and individuals showed up in support of Bundy, eventually forcing authorities to release 300 of his confiscated cattle back onto public land on April 12, 2014.”

There are many reasons for the tortoise’s decline, all of them directly or indirectly related to humans. Respiratory disease is the primary culprit; tortoises in captivity that are released back into the wild spread bacteria that makes wild tortoises lose their appetite and sense of smell. Poaching, cattle grazing and the increasing development of desert towns, roads, power lines and industrial wind and solar panels also threaten their habitat. Translocating tortoises has also been found to be disruptive and ineffective.

The popularity of Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) such as dirt bikes and quads has exploded in the last 20 years, especially in tortoise habitat areas. And climate change is making conditions too hot and dry, even in the desert.

Ravens are particularly challenging. The nonnative birds, which eat baby tortoises, have increased in the desert by 1,000 percent since the 1970s. There is a 95 percent mortality rate in the tortoise’s first five years of life, because they have to live to six in order for their shells to be raven-proof. Ravens have increasingly been subsidized in the desert by humans, who leave trash and build power lines where they nest.

Protecting ‘Mini-Dinosaurs’

Hanford said THC and many other conservation groups are working to mitigate the impacts of these threats to desert tortoises, which he calls “mini-dinosaurs.” Indeed, the turtle form dates back 220 million years to the late Triassic Period. Wild desert tortoises can live up to 50 years and captive tortoises can live to 100. They hibernate from about October to March every year and spend up to 98 percent of their lives underground in burrows that they dig, which help support about 30 other species such as lizards, snakes and rabbits. Their extinction “would have a ripple effect across the desert,” said Hanford.

In addition to purchasing land to permanently conserve, THC works closely with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), other government agencies and other tortoise conservation groups to come up with creative solutions to protect this critical species. Those solutions include placing solar and wind installations in areas of the desert that are already disrupted, rather than disrupting new areas; erasing unofficial dirt roads that OHVs create; and using a 3D printer to create fake baby tortoise shells to discourage ravens from eating them.

Hanford, originally from Tennessee, has been doing desert conservation work in California since 2003. He led desert restoration crews for the Student Conservation Association and worked as an environmental and land acquisition consultant for nonprofits, land trusts and federal, state and local agencies. In 2015, he started working fulltime for THC and became the conservancy’s executive director in 2016.

Conservation Ambassadors

There are several steps that visitors to the desert can take to minimize their impact on tortoises, Hanford said.

“First, do no harm,” he said. “Assume that if you’re in the Mojave Desert, you’re in tortoise habitat. Drive very carefully, and on official roads only. Don’t rescue tortoises that don’t need rescuing. Zoos and national parks are handed tortoises all the time by seemingly well-intentioned folks. Move it if it’s on the highway, but once you’ve taken it into your car, that tortoise is probably not going to be in the wild anymore, which is a loss for them. Consider your impacts with ravens: your trash subsidizes them. And finally, vote with the environment in mind.”

Hanford and other tortoise experts also recommend adopting tortoises that are already in captivity. Captive desert tortoises cannot be returned to the wild because they develop and spread respiratory diseases.

“Adopting tortoises is not going to save the tortoises in the wild, but what it does do is it keeps their spirit and plight alive and front and center,” said Hanford. “People get exposure to them, so they serve as ambassadors.”

About 200 desert tortoises need to be adopted in Southern California, according to Linda Crawford, adoptions chair of the Foothills Chapter of the California Turtle & Tortoise Club, which coordinates adoptions in San Gabriel Valley. That chapter meets at 7:30 p.m. on the fourth Friday of every month in the Palm Room at the LA County Arboretum, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Learn more at

Vote like the future of your children depends on it

by Kevin Uhrich, Pasadena Weekly, Nov. 1, 2018

Before endorsing candidates and measures appearing on Tuesday’s ballot, we decided to share some happy Pasadena Weekly news.

First, we welcome to the world Sienna Mercy Chapman, born last week to longtime PW contributors Justin Chapman and Mercedes Blackehart. It seems like only yesterday that Justin was a student at PCC and freelancing for PW. Soon after that, he became the youngest person elected to the Altadena Town Council before heading off to UC Berkeley. Since they’ve been together, Mercedes has been a freelance photographer for the paper. Congratulations to you both.

Many of our readers remember PW Deputy Editor Joe Piasecki, who is now editor of one of our sister publications, The Argonaut, covering LA’s West Side. Joe and Kelly Corrigan, a digital editor for the LA Times, recently married in a grand ceremony full of family and friends at a church in Montrose. We wish both of you love, joy and happiness in your lives together.

Finally, Rashi Kesarwani, who contributed to the paper in 2007, is a candidate for the Berkeley City Council. Who knew? Now married and mother of a newborn son, Austin, Rashi is a 2005 graduate of Brown University who earned her master’s degree in public policy from UC Berkeley in 2012. That city would do well to have Rashi among its council members.

Speaking of babies, Ted Uhrich, the PW editor’s son, and his wife Dorene are expecting again. Their adorably loquacious 3-year-old, Kedt, is anxiously waiting to meet his little sister on Dec. 1.

And Amaré Thompson, who turned 2 in August, just moved to France to be near his dad, who plays pro basketball there. Little Mars, grandson of PW Office Manager Ann Turrietta, stays in touch with Grandma via FaceTime.

Regarding the election, Republican and Democrat alike would acknowledge that the country is in trouble right now, with the potential to go well beyond the constitutional crises caused by Watergate. War seems more imminent than ever, and portions of our planet are aflame as other regions sink further under water. This is the world that our families and friends will inherit, and this is why elections matter.

On Tuesday, California voters will choose a new governor and lieutenant governor, and decide on the offices of secretary of state, attorney general, controller, treasurer, insurance commissioner and superintendent of schools. There is also a full slate of state propositions. At the county level, Sheriff Jim McDonnell is up for re-election, and Measure W asks for a parcel tax to collect, clean and store rainwater runoff.

In the race for governor, we can’t really think of much Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s done in the legislative and political arena. Let’s just say Jerry Brown he’s not. Unfortunately, however, the same could be said of his opponent. With white supremacy on the rise and the republic teetering on the brink of calamity, now is not the time for division here at home. Vote for Gavin Newsom. Also Vote for Jim McDonnell and Vote Yes on Measure W.

Pasadena voters also have one US Senate race, two House contests and two ballot initiatives to weigh.

Her opponent may be right, that it’s time for US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, now 85, to step aside. But he is not the one to replace her. Feinstein’s done some stellar things while in office, and she remains a champion of core democratic values. Vote for Dianne Feinstein.

In the 28th Congressional District, Congressman Adam Schiff, a former federal prosecutor whose district includes portions of Pasadena, has been extremely adept at holding President Trump accountable. Vote for Adam Schiff.

Congresswoman Judy Chu of the 27th District has been a fighter for health care, gun control, labor rights and equal rights. Vote for Judy Chu.

Measure I is a three-quarter cent sales tax hike expected to raise $21 million a year for the city and go toward improving public safety and financing after-school programs, among other things. Vote Yes on Measure I.

Measure J is an advisory measure which asks if the city should give the Pasadena school district a third of those funds. Don’t punish the children for the mistakes of the adults. Instead, replace the district’s leaders with people who can actually do the job. Vote Yes on Measure J.

Proposition 6 would repeal a state gas tax used for infrastructure improvements. Yes, it’s a regressive tax, but we all drive and contribute to the problem. Vote No on Proposition 6.

Proposition 10 would repeal a state law prohibiting local communities from enacting their own rent control ordinances. Landlords didn’t have to raise rents so much, but they did, mostly because they could, thus creating much of the homeless and housing crisis we are now experiencing. Vote Yes on Proposition 10.

This Tuesday, vote for public safety, affordable housing and education because the quality of life for you and your kids really does depend on it.