Dilemma in the Desert

Green technology, that clean, eco-easy and eco-friendly savior to America’s dependency on fossil fuels, has just met its foe: the evasive and extremely endangered desert tortoise.

In a script that smacks of complicated irony that only short story author O. Henry could compose, the events unfolding in the eastern Mojave Desert are creating a modern day David and Goliath parable; this time Goliath is the big hulking brute of solar power while the hard-shelled reptile plays the role of endearing underdog David.

Hollywood, take note!

Right now, a $2.1 billion solar array project from BriteSource Energy Co., financed with a $1.6 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, a $168 million investment from the online search engine company Google and championed by the Obama administration, is in limbo. (According to BriteSource, when completed the three solar array towers at the Ivanpah solar facility would supply 140,000 homes with energy).

Two-thirds of construction was halted on April 15 at the northeast San Bernardino County site when workers discovered more tortoises on the site than originally anticipated. Lots more.

Back in 2007 and 2008, surveys commissioned by BriteSource estimated that perhaps 25 adults and juvenile torties roamed the 4,073-acre area. A federal permit allowed for only 38 tortoises to be displaced. Found torties would be relocated – a practice that many conservationists shun because it stresses the animals, and even when placed in new territories, they struggle to return to their original home, which may not exist anymore. (Biologists estimated that at least up to 50 percent of tortoises usually die after being moved. Not great odds.)

But back to those 25 torties — if there were only 25 torties.

Keith Matheny of the Desert Sun reports:

But less than a half-year after breaking ground, workers grading the land for the
solar arrays and installing perimeter fencing have encountered 59 adult and
juvenile tortoises, [Amy Fesnock chief California wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management] said.

Federal officials are reassessing projected numbers of the endangered tortoise on the
site, and Fesnock declined to provide a new estimate. But BLM biologist Larry LaPre
in late March said the belief now is there may be up to 140 tortoises on the

And while it may be 140 now, that’s not taking in a long-term view, as writer Daniel Danelski of the Press-Enterprise reveals:

More than 3,000 desert tortoises would be disturbed by a solar project in northeast San Bernardino County and as many as 700 young ones would be killed during three years of building, says a federal assessment issued Tuesday…

The project also will affect tortoises in nearby relocation and monitoring areas. The total number “harassed, injured or killed,” as defined by the Endangered Species Act, was estimated at 1,025 adults and 2,349 juveniles, the report says. Harassment includes moving animals, fitting them with radio transmitters or taking blood samples for disease testing. The original estimate was less than 200 adults would be disturbed.

Disrupting, relocating, injuring, killing…Doesn’t sound like a happy by-product and potential legacy of an earth-friendly, eco-conscious business, does it?

Finger-pointing and poo-pooing the specific numbers of tortoise population seems to be the task of the moment, especially from the BriteSource folks.

Matheny reports that:

BrightSource Energy spokeswoman Kristin Hunter said the Ivanpah project site is
“strategically located to avoid pristine land and minimize impact,” noting it is directly
adjacent to a 36-hole golf course, located next door to a casino and commercial
outlet center in Primm, Nev., and across the highway from a natural gas plant…”

In his reporting, Danielski found similar sentiments:

BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs questioned the accuracy of the BLM estimates.

“The projections in the biological assessment are not consistent with the actual numbers of tortoises found on the project site,” Wachs said in an email. “It appears that the largest concentrations of tortoise are outside the project and in areas that we designed the project to avoid.”

That said, how could original reports be so, so, so inaccurate? Some say the project – a potential shining example of green technology – was fast-tracked too quickly. Not to mention that finding tortoises in the desert is, by its nature, difficult. This long-living reptile spends 90 percent of it life underground in elaborate burrows and tunnels. When they do come up for air, these masters of disguise superbly blend into their surroundings. And babies…young tortoises are about the size of a silver dollar and extremely difficult to detect.

Another possible reason for missing the count: the years the original reports were done were drought years and tortoises just did what comes natural – they holed up and waited it out.

Currently, an assessment is being prepared and expected to be completed at the end of May.

According to writer Judith Lewis Mernit who pens for the High Country News:

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,” [Brian Croft of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife] 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.)

What will the outcome be? How will this tale of Good Guy vs. Good Guy turn out? Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Hairy Problem of the Tortoise and the Giant Solar Power Company.” We’re anticipating some interesting smack downs in the desert…

— Brenda Rees, editor