Biologist Larry LaPre observes an older male desert tortoise. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Ivanpah Valley, Calif. — Stubborn does not come close to describing the desert tortoise, a species that did its evolving more than 220 million years ago and has since remained resolutely prehistoric.
Its slowpoke take on biological adaptation has exposed modern vulnerabilities. The persnickety reptile is today beset by respiratory infections and prone to disease. Its only defenses are the shell on its back and the scent of its unspeakably foul urine.
FOR THE RECORD:
The subheadline on an earlier online version of this article erred in describing the desert tortoises as "endangered creatures." As the article notes, the species is classified as threatened.
How this creature the size of a shoe box became the single biggest obstacle to industrial-scale solar development in the Mojave Desert is turning into a true story of the survival of the fittest.
PHOTOS: Protecting the desert tortoise
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 to an eagle nest, 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 current recovery efforts begin to gain traction, this threatened species could become collateral damage in the war against fossil fuels.
GRAPHIC: Impact of solar projects on desert tortoises
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
BrightSource's project at Ivanpah is the first large-scale solar plant to enter the desert tortoise regulatory maze. Its experience is a case study for how the booming solar industry must deal with the reptile.
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, also agreeing to monitor them for five years after they were moved.
The company made its first concession to the tortoise during planning, giving up about 10% of its expected power output in a redesign that reduced the project footprint by 12% 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 just 16. Based on biological calculations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued BrightSource a permit to move a maximum of 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 limit put the company under enormous pressure, as more and more tortoises began cropping up and BrightSource's project came closer to the federal thresholds.
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 struck the animal and ordered it euthanized.
A flurry of emails ensued. Steve DeYoung, then a BrightSource vice president, wrote to a federal biologist: "How in God's name could anyone blame us? It is completely unconscionable that we would be blamed for this. I simply cannot sit back and watch this happen."
Ultimately, the death was not attributed to the project. But other mishaps occurred, many of them documented in 36 boxes of project files stored at the Bureau of Land Management office in Needles.
The reports read like medical charts: a juvenile had his right forelimb gnawed by rodent, a tortoise died of heat distress after being caught in the black plastic erosion fencing, hatchlings were set upon by army ants, which killed four babies still in their eggs and injured four others.