According to a letter submitted by Solar Millennium, the company has asked the California Energy Commission (CEC) to temporarily suspend the application review of its proposed Ridgecrest Solar Power project. As noted previously on this blog, the Ridgecrest Solar power project could fragment critical Mohave Ground Squirrel habitat and harm a healthy desert tortoise population.
Solar Millennium intends to use the suspension period to conduct an intensive study of the Mohave Ground Squirrel--aided by a known expert on the species--to shed light on the population and behavior in the vicinity of Ridgecrest beginning in Spring 2011 and run for two years. In its letter, Solar Millennium stated its plans to restart the application for the Ridgecrest site if the study finds that construction will not significantly impact the Mohave Ground Squirrel. The company could use the study to find a configuration for the site (or perhaps an alternative location) that would be less likely to draw opposition from the CEC Staff, which recommended against construction on the Ridgecrest site due to the impact it would have on the Mohave Ground Squirrel, which uses the site as a wildlife corridor.
Solar Millennium will partner with AECOM and Dr. Philip Leitner--a Mohave Ground Squirrel (MGS) expert--to conduct the study. The study will involve radio tracking, live trapping, identification of habitat features in MGS corridors, and genetic sampling to determine how the local population is related and how the corridor may impact the gene pool. If the study is purely science-based--which Solar Millennium's outline suggests--the findings could advance our understanding of the MGS population in its northern range. The challenge, however, would be setting up a firewall between Solar Millennium's focus on profit, and the proposed science-based endeavor to better understand and preserve this threatened species.
Mr. Leitner's association with the study is a positive sign considering his history of studying the Mohave Ground Squirrel. Mr. Leitner is also associated with the California State University-Stanislaus Endangered Species Recovery Program and works with the Desert Managers Group, which is also spearheading studies of the MGS' current status.
Screenshot below is the graphic presented in the CEC's draft environmental impact statement depicting MGS core population areas and corridors.