Solar Millennium presented the results of a study that it presumably funded regarding the desert tortoise population on the proposed site of the Ridgecrest Solar Power project. As noted in previous posts, the California Energy Commission (CEC) staff judged that construction on the proposed site would incur harm to the threatened Mohave Ground Squirrel and endangered desert tortoise that could not be corrected by mitigation efforts, and recommended against the project. Solar Millenium's study, however, supports its desire to build on the site and argues that the tortoise population present on the site is not worth preserving.
The Study's Findings:
According to the Solar Millennium study, the density of the desert tortoise population on the Ridgecrest site is not significant based on surveys of the West Mojave conducted in 1999. The study makes this judgment by citing previous surveys (1999 and older) that suggest the desert tortoise population on the Ridgecrest site is comparatively lower than the population in other areas of the West Mojave. The study criticizes the CEC staff study of tortoise density in the Ridegcrest area, arguing that the CEC study used a method that does not apply appropriate precision and extrapolates trends from broad-area studies that cannot be applied to "small" sites such as the Ridgecrest Solar Power project.
Furthermore, the study claims that the desert tortoise population on the site is unlikely to be of genetic significance (and, thus, not of importance to the ongoing recovery of the tortoise population in the area) since the genetic value of the tortoise population in the area has already been degraded by population loss and fragmentation caused by Highway 395, ravens, and agricultural development. The study claims that the site is home to a medium density population, at best. In my view, a medium density population of any endangered species is significant.
The Study's Flaws:
The standards for biological value set forth by Solar Millennium in this study suggest that the company believes it should be permitted to bulldoze any tract of desert that does not have a "high density" of tortoises and where the tortoise population has not been impacted by development, transportation, or ravens. Using this criteria, Solar Millennium is practically writing itself a pass to build on any tract of public land in the Mojave Desert.
The Solar Millennium study fails to consider the cumulative impact of the project on the future health of the desert tortoise population in the West Mojave by simply writing off the habitat in the entire area as too fragmented. It is not the job of Solar Millennium or contracted researches to essentially devalue large swaths of public land--and the endangered species therein. It is even more ironic that the study argues in favor of construction by essentially claiming that the tortoises on site are threatened by the same factors that made it endangered in the first place--habitat loss and development.
The tortoise population on site is significant because even at medium density preserving the site could maintain an important anchor for the West Mojave population and area connectivity that will eventually be critical in the species' recovery. Unlike Solar Millennium, the American public has not yet given up on the existence of the desert tortoise in the West Mojave.