Out of harm’s way

Bi­ol­o­gists scour Mo­jave Desert in tor­toise roundup.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - T ENVIRONMENT - By LOUIS SA­H­A­GUN

ONE sunny morn­ing, more than 100 bi­ol­o­gists and con­tract work­ers fanned out across a nearly pris­tine stretch of the east­ern Mo­jave Desert to start round­ing up tor­toises block­ing con­struc­tion of the first ma­jor so­lar en­ergy plant to be built on pub­lic land in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

It is the height of tor­toise court­ing sea­son. The bi­ol­o­gists me­thod­i­cally peered un­der ev­ery bush and into ev­ery hole on both sides of a 3km 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 San Bernardino County’s panoramic Ivan­pah Val­ley, just north of In­ter­state 15 and about 64km south-west of Las Ve­gas, 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 1,312ha, 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 365ha 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 US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice desert tor­toise re­cov­ery of­fice.

Un­der a plan ap­proved by the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice and the US Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, as many tor­toises as pos­si­ble will be cap­tured, weighed, mea­sured, pho­tographed, blood tested, fit­ted with ra­dio trans­mit­ters and housed in quar­an­tine pens with ar­ti­fi­cial bur­rows.

The tor­toises will re­main in the pens un­til they can be trans­ported and re­leased in nat­u­ral set­tings else­where in the re­gion de­ter­mined to be free of dis­ease and preda­tors – a process ex­pected to take sev­eral months. Tor­toise translo­ca­tion is still an ex­per­i­men­tal strat­egy with a dis­mal track record. In pre­vi­ous ef­forts, trans­ported tor­toises have shown a ten­dency to wan­der, some­times for kilo­me­tres, of­ten back to­ward the habi­tat in which they were found. The stress of han­dling and adapt­ing to un­fa­mil­iar ter­rain ren­ders the rep­tiles vul­ner­a­ble to po­ten­tially lethal threats: pre­da­tion by dogs, ravens and coy­otes; res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease, de­hy­dra­tion and be­ing hit by ve­hi­cles.

But project bi­ol­o­gist and tor­toise ex­pert

An empty desert tor­toise shell is all that re­mains in the harsh Mo­jave desert as a fed­eral bi­ol­o­gist searches the scrub for the threat­ened desert tor­toise in the east­ern Mo­jave Desert near Primm, Ne­vada. Mercy Vaughn was op­ti­mistic.

“Our goal is zero kill,” Vaughn said. “I feel a lot more pos­i­tive about this re­lo­ca­tion project than any other I have been in­volved with or heard about. That is be­cause these an­i­mals will be trans­ported less than a half-mile away. So they will still be within their home range, or near it.”

Vaughn added: “The ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fort un­fold­ing here to­day is a mea­sure of our com­mit­ment to this an­i­mal, which is a fed­er­ally-listed species and em­blem­atic of the desert. It is also our state rep­tile.”

Brightsource’s project will rely on hun­dreds of mir­rors known as he­liostats to fo­cus the sun’s rays on the tops of 66m tow­ers, where wa­ter boil­ers will pro­duce high-pres­sure More than a dozen threat­ened tor­toises will be rounded up and re­lo­cated to make way for the con­struc­tion of the Ivan­pah So­lar Elec­tric Gen­er­at­ing Fa­cil­ity, about 8km from Primm, Ne­vada. steam to run elec­tric tur­bines. 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.

Sev­eral al­ter­na­tive en­ergy com­pa­nies are rac­ing to fi­nalise per­mits and break ground by the end of the year, which would al­low them to qual­ify for fed­eral stim­u­lus funds. At stake are thou­sands of jobs and enough en­ergy to power al­most 1.8 mil­lion homes, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral land man­agers.

The Cal­i­for­nia desert tor­toise pop­u­la­tion has fallen to an es­ti­mated 33,000 on pub­lic lands in the north-east­ern Mo­jave Desert. Some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists fear that the de­vel- op­ment of large-scale power plants will has­ten the demise of Go­pherus agas­sizii, which live a cen­tury and spend most of their lives un­der­ground.

“It is com­plete hubris for any­one to say you can save a species by re­mov­ing it from its habi­tat,” said Ja­nine Blae­loch, di­rec­tor of the Western Lands Project, a non-profit Seat­tle or­gan­i­sa­tion ded­i­cated to pre­vent­ing pri­vati­sa­tion of pub­lic lands. “This is the be­gin­ning of the in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of this site, and the ir­re­versible trans­for­ma­tion of its ecosys­tem.”

Vaughn agreed, up to a point. “Since we have de­clin­ing num­bers through­out the Mo­jave Desert, ev­ery in­di­vid­ual tor­toise mat­ters,” she said. – Los An­ge­les Times/ McClatchy-Tribune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices A desert tor­toise look­ing out of its bur­row in the Ivan­pah Val­ley in the east­ern Mo­jave Desert. It was part of a con­trol group of tor­toises in­tended to monitor the mor­tal­ity rate re­sult­ing from the con­struc­tion of a ma­jor so­lar fa­cil­ity.

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