More desert tortoises found at Mojave solar project

 

On Friday, April 15, the Bureau of Land Management issued a notice ordering the “immediate temporary suspension of activities” for part of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station construction site in the Mojave Desert (see HCN story “High Noon,” May 9, 2009). The reason: More desert tortoises, a federally threatened species, have been found in the proposed development area than official surveys anticipated.

Way more.

The Biological Opinion submitted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife in October 2010 estimated that up to 32 tortoises Mojave desert tortoisemight live in the 5.4-square mile site, which lies just west of the California-Nevada state line near the Mojave National Preserve. It allowed for 38 tortoises to be “captured and harassed” during project construction and for three to be killed in any one year throughout the project’s 40 years of operation. Biologists got to work last fall digging tortoises out and collapsing empty burrows, relocating the creatures to nearby pens in which they’d wait out the winter.

But by late March of this year, the biologists roaming the site had already turned up 39 adult tortoises. Two animals had already been killed – one by overheating as it paced along an exclusion fence, trying to find a way back to its ancestral home.

The discovery “indicates that there are more tortoises on the site than indicated in the biological opinion,” says Brian Croft, senior biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Ventura, Calif. "We’re reassessing the project and writing a new one.”

The news comes as no surprise to Michael Connor of the Western Watersheds Project, whose organization filed suit in January against the Interior Department, alleging hasty and inadequate analysis of the project’s environmental impacts.

“We told them repeatedly that they needed to do a better estimate and better count of the tortoises,” Connor says. Instead, Fish and Wildlife’s biological opinion took what Connor calls a “lowball” tortoise population number from official surveys provided by the Oakland, Calif.-based developer, BrightSource Energy. BrightSource biologists found 25 tortoises on the site in 2007 and 2008. BrightSource later reduced the project’s footprint.

Since tortoises spend more than half of the year underground, counting them requires more than an above-ground count, says Connor. Tortoises are often referred to as a "cryptic" species, which, in zoology, is a term referring to an animal's ability to camouflage and conceal itself to avoid detection.  Cryptic animals are hard to find, and harder to count.

Connor advocates a counting method that includes a “mark recapture,” in which biologists find tortoises and mark them in some way, and then return later for another survey.

By some estimates, the tortoise population on the site might be as high as 140. “That’s the upper confidence limit of the population estimate,” Croft says.  “But anytime you’re dealing with a cryptic species like tortoises your confidence estimates are really wide. The smaller size classes of tortoises are really hard to find, even for incredibly experienced (researchers).”

BrightSource spokesperson Keely Wachs has said that the temporary suspension won’t delay the 2013 start of the project. The suspension order doesn’t affect ongoing work on Phase I, where the tortoises have already been cleared.

Nature and the federal agencies tasked with protecting it on public land, however, may have the final say.

“If we look at it and decide that there are too many tortoises on the site we could conceivably call jeopardy,” Croft says. “But we can’t be pre-decisional or give any inkling of what we want to do." (If the FWS did determine the species was in jeopardy, it would halt the project and potentially force the developers to make significant changes to the generating station.)

“We are trying to do it as quickly as possible,” he adds, if not for the developer’s sake, then for the tortoises themselves. “We have some tortoises in quarantine pens from Phase I already. We don’t want to just leave them there."

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News.

Image of desert tortoise courtesy Flickr user Mike Jones.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.