At the $2.2 billion BrightSource Energy solar farm in the Ivanpah Valley, the tortoise brought construction to a standstill for three months when excavation work found far more animals than biologists expected.
BrightSource has spent $56 million so far to protect and relocate the tortoises, but even at that price the work has met with unforeseen calamity: animals crushed under vehicle tires, army ants attacking hatchlings in a makeshift nursery and one small tortoise carried off by an eagle, its embedded microchip pinging faintly as it receded.
History has shown the tortoise to be a stubborn survivor, withstanding upheavals that caused the grand dinosaur extinction and ice ages that wiped out most living creatures. But unless recovery efforts begin to gain traction, this threatened species could become collateral damage in the war against fossil fuels.
Costly conservation efforts by state and federal agencies and solar companies have created a mishmash of strategies that one scientist says amounts to a “grand science experiment,” said Jeff Lovich, who studies the impact of renewable energy projects on desert tortoises for the U.S. Geological Survey.
“One could argue that they are nature’s greatest success story,” Lovich said. “Yet over half the world’s turtles are in dire need of help. The common denominator is humans. They may not survive us.”
An ideal site
Long before construction began, BrightSource was warned that the site was thick with tortoises, more so than any of the other dozen solar farms planned for that part of the Mojave.
But BrightSource wanted the site because it is ideal for generating solar power. So the company negotiated with state and federal agencies to hash out meticulously detailed protocols for collecting and relocating tortoises.
The company made its first concession to the tortoise during planning, giving up about 10 percent of its expected power output in a redesign that reduced the project footprint by 12 percent and the number of 460-foot-tall “power towers” from seven to three.
BrightSource also agreed to install 50 miles of intricate fencing, at a cost of up to $50,000 per mile, designed to prevent relocated tortoises from climbing or burrowing back into harm’s way.
The first survey of tortoises at the site found only 16. Based on biological calculations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued BrightSource a permit to move a maximum 38 adults, and allowed a total of three accidental deaths per year during three years of construction. Any more in either category and the entire project would be shut down.
The pressure boiled over after company biologists discovered an adult female tortoise with its carapace crushed in October 2010, during a media tour of the site. Biologists concluded that a vehicle had struck the animal and ordered it euthanized.