The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now estimates that BrightSource Energy LLC's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS) could displace or kill as many as 140 desert adult tortoises, and hundreds of juveniles which are harder to detect during construction. When the Department of Interior and California Energy Commission initially approved the project, located in the northeastern Mojave Desert, they expected to encounter 38 tortoises on the site. However, according to the monthly biological compliance report, the construction crews working on the first phase of the project (only a third of the total project) had already displaced 49 tortoises as of February, strongly suggesting that initial biological surveys underestimated the potential biological impact of the project. The project's destructive impacts leave many asking why BrightSource Energy chose to build its facility on pristine habitat when thousands of acres of already-disturbed land and open rooftops await solar panels.
Because the revised estimate is a significant departure from the project's expected impacts, the BLM re-opened consultations with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (lead agency on endangered species issues) to determine how to proceed. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) must issue a biological opinion within 135 days. Since the USFWS acknowledged the consultations on 28 March, an opinion may not be issued until August.
It's not clear if BrightSource Energy can continue to bulldoze the desert habitat on the project site, but the USFWS notification to the BLM pointed out that no "irreversible or irretrievable commitment of resources" should be allowed that could jeopardize "the continued existence of endangered or threatened species". Sources close to the project expect bulldozers to begin clearing more land within the next week, however, which would seem to be an irreversible commitment of resources.
The news of revised tortoise estimates does not come as a surprise to some desert experts familiar with the project site. Even during California Energy Commission hearings running up to the approval of the project last year, experts testified to the biological diversity on the pristine site. Tortoise surveys highlighted a healthy and thriving tortoise population, which is uncommon for a species that is in decline throughout the rest of its range. A report titled "Status of the Species and Critical Habitat Range-wide" issued in September 2010 judged that the tortoise faces a "low potential of recovery, adjusted based on current uncertainties about various threats and our ability to manage them." Improperly sited solar facilities are certainly a major threat to tortoise habitat.
BrightSource Energy's project is a flagship experiment, not just for the company, but for politicians spearheading a misguided energy policy that emphasizes continued destruction of public land for energy production. Solar energy is a flexible technology, and panels on rooftops or already-disturbed land close to our cities can negate the need for expensive transmission lines and lost wildlands.
The project is not just impacting tortoises since the site is home to an abundance of special status birds and plants, including a new species of primrose. The site probably serves as forage habitat for threatened bighorn sheep and golden eagles, as well.
Below is a copy of the memorandum sent from USFWS in response to BLM's request to re-open consultations. The memo was provided by the BLM.
2011-TA-0253 ISEGS Memorandum