Originally Published: August 18, 2014 6 a.m.
LAS VEGAS - The federal government is taking the unusual step of beginning to sterilize an endangered species it is trying to save.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials say they have to curb the backyard breeding of desert tortoises because the growing population of unwanted pet tortoises diverts resources from efforts to preserve the species in the wild.
Mike Senn, assistant field supervisor for the Fish &Wildlife Service in Nevada, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it can be "a really difficult issue" to explain to people. He said simply breeding more tortoises won't save the species if not enough is done to improve and protect natural habitat and address threats in the wild.
Captive tortoises threaten native populations because they can carry diseases with them when they escape or are released illegally in the desert.
The agency will hold a two-day clinic in Las Vegas later this month to teach veterinarians from Nevada, Arizona, California and Utah new sterilization techniques from the experts who pioneered them.
About a dozen veterinarians will attend the clinic Aug. 27-28 and hear from Dr. Jay Johnson of the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital and two researchers from the University of Georgia, Dr. Stephen Divers and Dr. Laila Proenca.
Sterilizing tortoises was a complicated and invasive process, but Senn said new techniques are considered low-risk and effective.
Veterinarians trained at the clinic will be able to perform the procedures in their private practice and, Senn hopes, at future events where pet owners can get their tortoises sterilized for free or at reduced rates.
Nevada law allows just one pet tortoise per household, but the measure adopted last year grandfathered in those who already had more.
More than 50 tortoises will be sterilized during the clinic, and wildlife officials are seeking new homes for the animals. The nonprofit Tortoise Group is handling the adoptions. Those wishing to adopt or learn more about tortoise ownership can consult the organization's website.
Some of the tortoises to be operated on during the clinic came from a single crop of about 50 that were living in a backyard until their primary caretaker died - the sort of situation wildlife managers and tortoise rescue groups hope to avoid.
Other patients will be provided by the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a 220-acre facility established more than 20 years ago for developers to put the federally protected animals after removing them from building sites in booming Clark County.
The center is the valley's de facto tortoise shelter, taking in as many as 1,000 unwanted tortoises each year and racking up about $1 million in costs that otherwise could be spent on research and recovery work, Senn said.
The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center will close at the end of the year when its funding runs out.