Solar projects still sorting out tortoise’s fate

DFN: I’ve actually seen some of the tortoises to the east of Barstow; magnificent creatures; important to adequately resolve this issue and important to get the plant built. This is impacting Brightsource and Tessera Solar, Solar Millenium has a similar issue, but, its mojave ground squirrels (Ridgecrest plant).

Solar projects still sorting out tortoises’ fate
10:16 AM PDT on Friday, September 3, 2010
The Press-Enterprise

BrightSource Energy Co. has pounded hundreds of wooden surveyor stakes into the earth in northeast San Bernardino County while awaiting final decisions from state and federal agencies on whether to turn 5.6 square miles of public land into a solar energy plant.

With hundreds of millions in federal stimulus dollars at stake, time is critical to BrightSource. To qualify for a 30 percent federal subsidy, the Berkeley company’s $1.4 billion project must be deemed "shovel ready" for construction before the close of the year.

The developments are at the front of a wave of renewable energy projects proposed in the Mojave as the nation seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on petroleum.

A major obstacle remains, however. Still unresolved is what to do with desert tortoises living in the project’s path in the Ivanpah Valley near Primm, Nev. To move them, biologists would locate and dig up the burrows where tortoises sleep and take refuge from predators and extreme weather. Sixteen tortoises have been counted in the development area; an unknown number could have been missed if they were in their burrows.

Until recently, the plan was to move them to the nearby Mojave National Preserve. But the company and preserve managers failed to agree on terms, and now talks are under way to relocate them to federal Bureau of Land Management territory about a mile from the BrightSource project, according to preserve and BLM officials.

Another company, Houston-based Tessera Solar, is in a similar situation. The firm plans to build a $2 billion plant just north of Interstate 40, about 37 miles east of Barstow. About 90 adult tortoises have been found on the property, surveys found. Their fate remains a question.

Environmentalists are watching closely, since past efforts to relocate tortoises have had limited success. Many environmental groups say solar energy projects should be built on former farmland or other places where the value to wildlife already is diminished.

‘Very Complicated’

Tortoises are listed as threatened with extinction and protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. That means public land sought for large energy development won’t be construction-ready until the reptiles are safely out of harm’s way.

But moving tortoises is not a simple matter, and it remains under discussion by officials with several agencies, including the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game.

"It is very complicated," said Kevin Hunting, Fish and Game’s deputy director. "The agencies have yet to come to final agreement."

One issue is disease. An upper-respiratory illness is prevalent among the Mojave Desert tortoise populations, and officials don’t want relocated animals to spread infections. The officials must agree, among other considerations, on disease testing methods and what to do with the sick ones.

Hunting said wildlife officials must have confidence that relocated animals won’t overtax food and water sources needed by tortoises already living there. And reptiles can’t be moved to areas with plentiful predators, such as coyotes and feral dogs.

Relocation plans for the Ivanpah Valley tortoises likely will be resolved before the plan goes to the California Energy Commission for a vote Sept. 15, Hunting said.

BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said the company wants to do what’s best for the tortoises. "The final plan will ultimately be determined by the agencies’ biological opinions," he added in an e-mail.

Tessera’s Calico project, near Interstate 40 and the Cady Mountains, is expected to go to the energy commission in about a month, a company representative said.

The BLM is scheduled to decide on BrightSource and Tessera projects by Oct. 12, said BLM spokesman David Briery.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity, said the 11th-hour tortoise planning is unfair to her organization and other groups that want to analyze relocation plans and provide official comments.

"It is impossible for me to know what the new strategy is," she said. "It is impossible for me to comment effectively."

In an earlier interview, she said she is especially concerned about Ivanpah tortoises because they live at a higher altitude and may have genetics to help the species survive as they migrate from low elevations to escape global warming.

No Agreement

Nearly three years ago, the BLM announced plans to conduct environmental reviews of the BrightSource project. As late as this summer, BrightSource and Mojave National Preserve officials discussed plans to move the Ivanpah tortoises to areas inside the preserve along Morning Star Mine and Essex roads, areas where few tortoises remain, said Debra Hughson, the preserve’s science adviser. That plan would have included tortoise fencing along roads to keep the animals out of traffic.

The plans fell through, in part, because environmental review requirements could have made it difficult to meet BrightSource’s tight schedule, she said.

The most recent talks are focused on moving the Ivanpah tortoises about a mile northwest to BLM land at the base of the Clark Mountains, said Larry LaPre, a bureau biologist. One concern is that the land is not protected from future development, he said.

For the Tessera project, officials are talking about relocating tortoises a few miles to BLM land south of Interstate 40 and east of the Rodman Mountains, LaPre said.

Janette Coates, a Tessera spokeswoman, said the company scaled down its project from 8,200 acres to 6,200 acres to avoid displacing some tortoises.

Meanwhile, Laura Cunningham, an environmentalist who lives in Beatty, Nev., contacted the BLM, wanting to know how BrightSource could place hundreds of surveyor stakes on the public land before the project is approved.

"It seems like a done deal, like the decision has already been made," she said.

Tom Hurshman, a BLM project manager, responded to Cunningham in an e-mail. He said the staking is allowed under rules that permit "casual use" of the land.

Reach David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or


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