Change.org, Laura Goldman
Good news for Southern Californians: The first major solar energy plant in the region is about to be built in the Mojave Desert, providing cleaner power to about 140,000 homes. Bad news for Southern California desert tortoises: To prevent these federally protected reptiles from getting squashed by construction equipment, they are being rounded up – in the middle of mating season – and relocated to a safer area.
Earlier this week the Los Angeles Times reported that biologists and contract workers are in the process of removing an estimated 36 tortoises, the California state reptile, from the future 3,280-acre site of BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System. To gather solar energy, 400,000 mirrors will be erected on the site, the first of its kind on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.
In the process, a commission environmental report concluded the project will have a “long-term disturbance” of land, and government scientists say the area will be lost to wildlife use.
To save the tortoises, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a plan to capture them, fit them with radio transmitters and then keep them in pens with artificial tunnels. The tortoises will eventually be released to areas determined to be free from disease and predators. This process is expected to take several months.
So why is this bad news for these tortoises? Because the track record for relocation is dismal, according to the Times. The tortoises tend to wander back to their homes, sometimes crossing miles of desert to get there. They’re stressed out from being in unfamiliar terrain, which only compounds their vulnerability to predators, respiratory disease, dehydration and becoming (off-)road kill.
Fortunately, perhaps, they are being moved less than a half mile from their habitat in the Mojave, which may increase their chances for survival. Project biologist Mercy Vaughn told the Times she is optimistic. “Our goal is zero kill,” Vaughn said. “The extraordinary effort unfolding here today is a measure of our commitment to this animal.”
Less optimistic is Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, an organization dedicated to preventing the privatizing of public lands. “It is complete hubris for anyone to say you can save a species by removing it from its habitat,” she told the Times. “This is the beginning of the industrialization of this site, and the irreversible transformation of its ecosystem.”
Gopherus agassizii tortoises can live 100 years, spending most of their lives underground. Only an estimated 33,000 tortoises remain on public land in the northeast area of the Mojave Desert.
Last summer, I wrote about another reptile relocation effort, this one necessitated by a massive oil disaster, not a massive solar plant. Hundreds of sea turtle eggs were painstakingly transported from Gulf Coast beaches to the Kennedy Space Center, where they hatched and were released into the oil-free Atlantic. This process went better than expected: More than half of the relocated eggs successfully hatched. Hopefully the tortoises in California will share the same good fortune.
But there really is no need to uproot the tortoises in the first place. Newsweek reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein said there were many other places in the California desert “essential and appropriate” for building solar energy plants, “but there are also places that future generations will thank us for setting aside.”
Last December, Sen. Feinstein introduced the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA), a bill to establish two national monuments in the Mojave Desert that would protect 1 million acres of land that is home to the tortoises, bighorn sheep and other wildlife from intruders like solar developers and off-road vehicles.
Please help save desert tortoises and other endangered animals by signing the petition asking the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to approve the California Desert Protection Act.