The tortoise vs. the bulldozer

huge nevada solar array to be built atop threatened tortoises' habitat

PHOTO/U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE: A desert tortoise in its habitat in Southern Nevada. The species is classified as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

In Nevada’s race to a green-energy future, the threatened desert tortoise is losing ground to Big Solar.

The Gemini Project, an 11-square-mile solar energy array to be constructed on federal land near the Valley of Fire State Park in Southern Nevada, has received preliminary approval from regulators. The photovoltaic panels, arranged like a vast lake of mirrors in the desert, are to be built on land occupied by the tortoises and other rare and protected species.

 Plans call for some of the desert tortoises to be removed from the site prior to construction; hundreds of others, including eggs, hatchlings and juveniles, will be crushed when the desert vegetation is scraped off or mowed down. Once the solar panels are in place, surviving tortoises will be returned to an unfamiliar world of plentiful shade and – planners say — new growth of native plants.

No one knows if the plan to preserve some of the tortoises will work; it’s an experiment on a grand scale.

“The idea that we can put solar panels and desert tortoises together and they’ll live merrily in harmony for eternity has never been tested,” said Kevin Emmerich, director of Basin and Range Watch, an environmental group. “…We’re not opposed to solar; we just want it sited properly. The utility-scale model is really destructive. There are plenty of places to site it… (but) the model of doing that on public land with really significant wildlife populations on it is a dead end.

“That hurts endangered species, biodiversity and damages plant populations. There are a lot of places they could put solar that it will work. There’s really no reason to put it on wildlife habitat except to make profits for big companies.”

The $1 billion Gemini project is will be operated by Solar Partners XI. Arevia Power, the development manager for the project, did not respond to the Reno News & Review’s requests for an interview with a company spokesperson.

PHOTO/BASIN AND RANGE WATCH: The Silver State South solar farm near Primm, Nev. The Gemini project will be larger.

Energy, environment trade-offs

Gemini, and other projects like it, is representative of the collision of renewable energy technology with environmental and social concerns. The expansion of biofuels may take land away from essential food production; the extraction and processing of lithium may result in more pollution, and lithium batteries can’t be economically recycled. Geothermal plants and wind farms also have adverse environmental consequences.

Regulators are required to balance the impacts of green projects against the benefits of reducing the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels. In Nevada, the state government has set a goal of producing 50% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. There will be tradeoffs.  

The Gemini project would provide carbon-free electricity to about 400,000 homes in Las Vegas. The federal land involved stretches across an area with a large and growing population of desert tortoises, and encompasses a migration corridor that biologists have said is essential to preserving the species.

The Mohave landscape

Northern Nevada is within the Great Basin Desert, an inland sea of widely-spaced sagebrush, rabbit brush, juniper and varieties of pines. The more arid Mohave Desert encompasses Southern Nevada, a sandy region sparsely covered with Joshua trees, hardy grasses and creosote bushes.

The Mohave is home to the desert tortoise, listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The adult reptiles may weigh up to 15 pounds and have a lifespan of 80 years. Biologists note that the animal is an indicator species, whose well-being is a measure of the overall viability of the Mojave ecosystem.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 37% of the animals’ population was lost between 2004 and 2014. About 200,000 tortoises remain in the wild, according to biologists.

 Clearing the site

The land earmarked for the Gemini project is part of a migration area for the reptiles. Hundreds of them winter in burrows at the site. Biologists note that migration is essential for the species to prevent inbreeding, which can lead to species decline.

Emmerich, of Basin and Range Watch, said the Gemini site is near other solar project areas, transmission lines and highways that together will be a barrier to tortoise migration. He said clearing the land for the project will doom a significant number of the reptiles and disrupt the habitats of other plant and animal species.

Arevia Power’s initial management plan for the project anticipated that about 215 adult tortoises and about 900 juveniles would be at risk of being killed during construction. Under a relocation plan, as many tortoises as could be found would be removed from the area prior to site preparation and then returned after the solar panels are in place.

Mowing the desert

One alternative for clearing the land is to bulldoze the ground cover on the whole site, making it unlikely that the plants would grow back. In its review, the Bureau of Land Management preferred that about 65 percent of the site be mowed, an option for shredding the plants at ground level, but leaving roots undisturbed.

The tortoises would be returned to the 4,600-acre, mowed section and not the 2,500-acre section that will be traditionally cleared by bulldozer blades. Many of the plants in the mowed section would then grow back, planners hope, and provide forage for the animals.

Arevia worked with BLM in developing the alternative plan, according to published reports, modeling it after a smaller solar project by Valley Electric near Pahrump.

PV magazine, an online solar industry publication, touts Pahrump project as a model for improving the tortoise habitat.

PHOTO/DREAMSTIME: A captive desert tortoise and a dandelion.

A ‘bogus’ alternative

Emmerich, a former tortoise biologist, said the experience of the Pahrump project, which involved the removal and return of just four tortoises, has little bearing on what may or may not happen at the larger site.

“They put radio transmitters on the four (returned) tortoises and in a couple of years they lost two of them,” he said. “Compare four animals to 1,200 and there’s a big information gap there. It just seems scientifically bogus to use it as an example.”

The reptiles experience stress when being relocated and that may make them less likely to fight off diseases, he said. “There are a lot of reasons to be worried about this,” he said. “Climate change, drought and urbanization have all affected desert tortoises, but that population (at the site) has been doing pretty well. Then along comes this big experiment that could turn out to be a disaster… Biologists just don’t know how well it’s going to work.”

Rounding up tortoises

According to Emmerich, the developers expect to capture the 215 adult tortoises on the site. There should be an additional 900 hatchlings and juveniles also in the habitat that potentially can be relocated. Federal guidelines call for limiting the number of animals killed to the amount that can be “reasonably sacrificed” and not affect survival of species.

“As someone who has done the work, I can tell you that the young tortoises are hard to find,” Emmerich said. “They won’t be able to remove many of the hatchlings and juveniles… Many will be killed under the heavy equipment.”

At the solar site in Pahrump, where vegetation was mowed rather than scraped with a bulldozer blade, some creosote bushes grew back, but native grasses were replaced by invasive Russian thistle and annual grasses from Eurasia that thrive on disturbed ground. Those offer less nutrition for the reptile, Emmerich said.

PHOTO/DREAMSTIME: A solar array on federal land in Southern Nevada.

Throwing shade on reptiles

When the tortoises are returned to the site, their formerly open-sky environment will be turned into a land of artificial shade. Company officials have said that the shade will benefit the animals.

Emmerich said it’s true that the tortoises often seek cover from the heat in summer, but when they emerge from their burrows after hibernation they have to bask in sunlight.

“The idea that we’re going to help them with shade is laughable,” he said. “It’s almost like saying the tortoises have been waiting for this moment in evolution where humans come along and provide them with shade when they couldn’t handle it before.”

He noted that there are two rare plant species on the site, including two types of milkvetch, the Nye milkvetch and the threecorner milkvetch. The latter species is extremely rare, is the only plant with a Nevada state classification of “endangered,” and thrives in low-density, spotty populations on the site. Under the Gemini plan, Emmerich said, the project will eliminate about 25% of the habitat for that plant on all federal lands.

Extinction’s consequences

Other plant and animal species also will be impacted by the project, he said, including birds who will mistake the glittering solar farm for a lake and collide with the panels. The tortoises, though, are the major concern, because the species has been spiraling toward extinction.

Climate change and natural processes also cause species to go extinct, so what does it matter if creatures in a remote area, whether plant, animal or a rare fish in desert hot springs vanish from the planet?

 “I see that attitude a lot,” Emmerich said. “It’s a good question. Chances are if we lose a rare fish in remote pools, we are probably not going to go extinct ourselves. But we have to ask ourselves why was that species lost? Why did that happen? Drought? If it’s human caused, what about our water? Are we going to be able to survive?

“Just about every extinction has a connection to us. It’s unwise to write off another species. We have to think about why it happened. It’s a pretty poor attitude but I see it a lot.”

More solar farms

The proliferation of solar farms in Southern Nevada also effects peoples’ use of public lands, which are off limits for 30 years once projects are built. “The solar industry wants a real quick freebie,” Emmerich said. “It’s not just Gemini; dozens of others are about the same size. The question is, what is that going to do to the eventual quality of life for Nevada?”

On a recent visit to the site, Emmerich and others were approached by a security guard, who warned the group not to set foot on the land on either side of the highway. The guard said it was delicate habitat and the desert tortoises must be protected.

The visitors laughed without humor. “Our boots will disturb the habitat, but your bulldozers won’t?” Emmerich asked.

There was no response to that question or definitive answers about the long-term environmental consequences of Gemini and the other large-scale solar farms on Nevada’s public lands. “We just don’t know how intense the impacts are going to be,” Emmerich said.

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