Desert Tortoises Get Trumped by California’s Solar Plants

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BY JACK DINI – As a desert tortoise in San Bernardino County’s panoramic Ivanpah Valley I am scared, nervous, and jealous. More than 100 biologists and contract workers have been rounding up my fellow species because we were blocking construction of the first major solar energy plant to be built on public land in Southern California. These workers are disrupting our complex social tortoise networks and blood lines linked for centuries by dusty trails, shelters and hibernation burrows. (1)

The reason? To make way for construction of BrightSource Energy’s 3,280-acre, 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System. 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.


“Ivanpah is the first in a spate of massive solar thermal power plants due to start construction in California during the next two months, as developers race to qualify for a form of federal stimulus funding that expires at the end of the year. Ivanpah won major backing from the federal government earlier this year when it qualified for $1.375 billion in loan guarantees.

And by starting construction before the end of the year, BrightSource will qualify for a federal grant worth 30 percent of that total project cost, given in lieu of a tax credit of equal size already available to renewable-power developers,” reports David Baker. (2) Any doubt why they want to hurry up and get us tortoises out of the way?

Without the roundup, an estimated 17 of my federally threatened brothers and sisters, and an unknown number of half-dollar-sized hatchings in the 913 acre initial phase of the project would be squashed by heavy equipment. We are being put in pens until we can be transported and released in so-called natural settings elsewhere in the region determined to be free of disease and predators. (3)

Here’s what really scares me. 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 miles, often back toward the habitat in which they were found. The stress of handling and adapting to unfamiliar terrain renders us vulnerable to potentially lethal threats: predation by dogs, ravens and coyotes; respiratory disease, dehydration and being hit by vehicles. (1) According to a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) report, the project will displace or kill approximately 30 of my brethren. (4)

So why am I jealous? Think of the spotted owl, the California delta smelt, and the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse as examples. We were told that spotted owls were disappearing because big bad timber companies were cutting down old-growth forests. So the environmental movement rushed to the forests, hugged the trees, and issued news releases to decry the evils of the logging industry. Save the owl. Save the trees. Kill the timber industry. As a result of the hysteria to save the ‘endangered’ owls, US timber sales were reduced by 80 to 90 percent, forcing saw mills to close, loggers to go broke, and the literal disappearance of entire towns that depended on the industry, notes Tom DeWeese. (5)

The delta smelt is a small, slender-bodied fish with a typical adult size of 2 to 3 inches that is found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary. In 2007, a federal judge ordered operators of the giant water pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta- which funnels water to two-thirds of California- to decrease water exports by one-third to protect the endangered delta smelt.(6)

The crux of the issue is the contention by environmentalists that the huge Tracy-area pumps used by the State Water Project and Federal Central Valley Project to bring delta water to 25 million Californians and irrigate 750,000 acres of cropland also suck up and kill smelt. Peter Fimrite reports, “The rules are among the most comprehensive ever put together under endangered species laws to protect a single species of fish, according to experts.” (7)

The Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse has been called a “cute little rodent distinguished by a long tapering tail, large hind feet, small front feet and a propensity to hop erratically through the grass when disturbed. An area in Colorado, where some 31,000 acres of local government and privately owned land in the state and stretching into Wyoming-an area larger than the District of Columbia-was quarantined from all development so as not to disrupt the mouse’s natural habitat.

Strange as it may seem, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced in July 2008 that it will remove the Preble’s mouse from the threatened species list in Wyoming, but keep the mouse on the list in Colorado.

The government said the mouse can be delisted in Wyoming because new populations have been confirmed in habitat  not at risk from development. But in Colorado, home construction and other types of development continue to threaten Preble’s mouse habitat. (8) Think about this for a moment and pretend you are a Preble’s mouse nested along the border between Colorado and Wyoming. Depending on which direction you choose to roam on a given day, you become and endangered species (Colorado side) or just a simple mouse roaming the fields (Wyoming side).

Then there’s the issue of bird kills. What’s the life of a bird worth? If you’re Big Oil it can range from $7,000 to $20,000 per bird, and will probably be much more for BP for bird deaths in the Gulf. (9) Yet, US wind turbines kill an estimated 75,000 to 275,000 birds per year, but the US Department of Energy won’t press charges. Michael Fry has said, “Somebody has given the wind industry a get-out-of-jail-free card.” (10)

The California desert tortoise population has fallen to an estimated 33,000 on public lands in the northeastern Mojave Desert. Some environmentalists fear that the development of large-scale power plants will hasten the demise of my species which live a century and spend most of their lives underground. Yet none of the big organizations such as Greenpeace, Sierra Club, NRDC, National Audubon Society, etc., have stepped in to help.

Matt Ridley reports, “Many of the big environmental organizations have lost interest in ongoing threats to endangered species as they chase the illusion of stabilizing a climate that was never stable in the past. It is as if the recent emphasis on climate change has sucked the oxygen from the conservation movement. (11) Robert Bryce sums this up very well. “When it comes to protecting America’s wildlife, federal law enforcement officials have a double standard: one that’s enforced against oil, gas, and electric utility sectors, and another that exempts the wind power sector from prosecution despite years of evidence involving hundreds, even thousands of violations to two of America’s oldest wildlife-protection laws.” (9) We can now add solar power to the list alongside wind power.


  1. Louis Sahagun, “Biologists scour Mojave in desert tortoise roundup,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2010
  2. David R., Baker, “Solar power plant breaks ground,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2010, Page D1
  3. Will Kane, “Solar plant’s last hurdle: 4 tortoises,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 26, 2010, Page D1
  4. G. Shaun, “Destruction in Ivanpah begins: Future of tortoise in doubt,” mojavedesertblog, October 9, 2010
  5. Tom DeWeese,  Environmental & Climate News, 10, 10, September 2007
  6. Kelly Zito, “State braces for water rationing,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 31, 2008, Page A1
  7. Peter Fimrite, “U.S. acts to protect a little delta fish,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 16, 2008, Page A1
  8. Mead Gruver, “Preble’s mouse still threatened in Colorado, not Wyoming,”, July 9, 2008
  9. Ruffin Prevost, “Utility to pay for bird deaths,” Billings Gazette, July 11, 2009
  10. Robert Bryce, “Bird kills? What bird kills?, September 11, 2009,
  11. Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist, (New York, HarperCollins, 2010), 339