BLM advances solar project that will harm bighorn sheep

The Bechtel Corporation's Soda Mountain solar farm will undo decades of conservation in California.

 

Dennis Schramm has long looked forward to a time when it might be possible to build a land bridge for bighorn sheep over the Interstate 15 freeway in the Soda Mountains, on the edge of California's Mojave National Preserve. A former National Park Service superintendent at the preserve, Schramm knows how well such crossings work: Three bypasses built in 2011 over U.S. 93 in Arizona have already become sheep highways. A similar bridge over the I-15 could allow desert bighorn trapped on the south side of the freeway to head north into the Avawatz Mountains and from there to Death Valley National Park, where they could mix up their DNA with a fresh new herd.

Sheep won't jump the freeway's barrier fences, says Schramm, so right now “they come down the mountain and stand there, looking at the fence." Noted sheep biologist John Wehausen, who called this place “the most important restorable corridor” for sheep in the Mojave, “looked at the trail and determined that the sheep had used it for thousands of years before I-15 was built,” Schramm says. The sheep “know they should be able to cross.”

Desert bighorn sheep. Photo by David Lamfrom
Desert bighorn sheep. Photo by David Lamfrom.

One might have thought, then, that Schramm would be happy to hear that the Bureau of Land Management’s recommended plan for a large-scale solar farm in the Soda Mountains, revealed last Friday, took a chunk out of the developer’s proposed design, right at the place where the sheep overpass might go. “Preserving potential future bighorn sheep connectivity was part of our rationale,” says BLM spokesperson Dana Wilson, for eliminating an array of panels on the north side of the I-15, reducing the project by 575 acres, to 1,647 acres of public land. The change drives the project’s capacity down by about 100 megawatts, but by official calculations, it's still enough to power 79,000 homes.

Unfortunately, Schramm has not been appeased. Because it’s not the overpass that’s at issue in this decade, or even the next. As valuable as it would be, no one expects a land bridge for the Soda Mountain bighorn sheep to become reality any time soon. It would cost right around $30 million, and no one has a clue where that kind of money would come from.

Meanwhile, a much more practical effort to get the sheep to cross the I-15, by luring them along washes that run under the freeway — a project for which the National Park Service has already earmarked funds — would still be completely blocked by the solar project, even at its reduced size. Sheep don’t currently use the washes, because they don't like to go under things, which is why the BLM didn't consider them significant in their analysis. But NPS biologists think they can entice sheep to use the underpasses with irresistible survival resources like fresh water. The proposed solar development, wedged as it is between the freeway and the mountains, would sit right in the animals' way.

“They’re conserving one little corridor for an overpass project far in the future,” Schramm says, "but they're precluding any opportunity for the sheep to cross in the immediate present. It’s a short-sighted political decision.”

The Soda Mountains solar project was first proposed in 2008 by an East Coast company, Caithness Energy. It stalled out, reportedly over wildlife controversies (the project will also destroy habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and, by pumping groundwater, will imperil the endangered Mohave tui chub, which hangs on in the nearby Soda Springs). The Bechtel Corporation bought the project a few years later, reigniting a fight environmental groups thought was over. The BLM insists the actual project site doesn’t trample on bighorn habitat, but herds have been known to move through the area along Zyzzyx Road, which runs up against the proposed site southeast from the I-15. Ed LaRue, a biologist who represents the Desert Tortoise Council, recently walked Zyzzx Road and filmed a herd of 17 bighorn, crossing a rocky slope just a half mile from where the panels would go.

And those sheep — their very presence, their health, their mobility — are  “one of the great conservation success stories of the last 50 years,” says David Lamfrom, the desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Desert conservation efforts from Federal Land Management Policy Act of 1976 to the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 cleared the way for iconic species like bighorn to return to places where they’d died off or disappeared. The Soda Mountains sheep “made the 15-mile journey from Afton Canyon in the Cady Mountains to the Soda Mountains,” Lamfrom says, “and recolonized that part of the Mojave National Preserve where sheep had been absent for a very long time.

“We haven’t told this success story enough,” Lamfrom says. “It wasn’t people that moved the sheep. A naturally occurring population recolonized their historic range. The sheep moved themselves, because people created the space for them to do that.”

If they hadn’t, the $30 million land bridge wouldn’t be even up for discussion. It was that migration out of the Cady Mountains that put the sheep in a place where they could even consider crossing the freeway.

The BLM justifies the project's harm to wildlife by arguing it will offset greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fueled energy production. The agency also regards the Soda Mountain site as a lesser evil, a place its biologists consider "disturbed" with the freeway and its fences, as well as transmission lines that run along Zyzzyx Road.

But what’s disturbed by human reckoning is not necessarily out of reach for wildlife. The Soda Mountains area is "arguably one of the most conserved areas in the country,” Lamfrom says. “It’s between two of the three largest national park units in the lower 48. Do we really want to undo all the good we’ve done?”

To Dennis Schramm, the answer is no. The Soda Mountains area isn't in any of the official Solar Energy Zones the BLM settled on in 2012, nor is it within the other 770,000 acres the agency considers potentially good for solar. It hasn't been designated as prime energy-development turf in the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a statewide proposal to resolve conservation and renewable energy development conflicts.

“So move it,” Schramm says. “The BLM has said that, in their opinion, there are about a million acres of land where solar could go. So pick another couple of thousand somewhere else.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News based in Southern California.