PRIMM, Nev. – More than 100 biologists and contract workers fanned out across a nearly pristine stretch of the eastern Mojave Desert on Friday to start rounding up tortoises blocking construction of the first major solar energy plant to be built on public land in Southern California.
On a sunny morning in the height of tortoise courting season, the biologists methodically peered under every bush and into every hole on both sides of a two-mile lane traversing the project site. Following close behind, workers bladed century-old creosote bushes and erected fencing in areas that will soon be declared “tortoise-free zones.”
The effort in panoramic Ivanpah Valley disrupted complex tortoise social networks and blood lines linked for centuries by dusty trails, shelters and hibernation burrows.
Federal wildlife biologists said it was needed to make way for construction of BrightSource Energy’s 3,280-acre, 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System.
Without the roundup, an estimated 17 federally threatened tortoises – and an unknown number of half-dollar-sized hatchlings – in the 913-acre initial phase of the project would have been squashed by heavy equipment.
A total of 36 adult tortoises are believed to inhabit the project site. “We can never say we got them all out of there – these are cryptic creatures,” said Roy Murray of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery office.
The development of solar power facilities in the desert has been a top priority of the Obama administration as it seeks to ease the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and address climate change.