First Solar Project Displaces Over 160 Desert Tortoises

First Solar has displaced at least 161 adult and juvenile desert tortoises to make way for its Silver State South Solar project in Nevada, as of August 2015, according to documents provided by the Department of Interior.  Initial information indicates several tortoises relocated from the project site have already died, possibly as a result of being forced into unfamiliar ranges.  First Solar is clearing over 3.7 square miles of intact desert habitat for the project after the company ignored requests to consider less destructive locations.  Underscoring its interest in profit over the environment, the company has even funded attacks on rooftop solar - a more sustainable alternative to meeting our renewable energy needs that First Solar sees as a threat to its bulldozer-led approach.

Translocation Results Uneven
Although the 161 desert tortoises found on the Silver State South project site were moved to the surrounding desert before bulldozers leveled the area for solar panels, at least seven of the displaced animals have fallen victim to natural predators and hyperthermia months after construction began. By contrast, only three of the animals already resident in the translocation recipient site have succumbed to predation, according to a review of documents provided by the Department of Interior in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  Biologists will need to determine if the translocated tortoises have lower survival rates than tortoises already residing in the recipient site.

We do not know much about how the process of translocation impacts tortoises, but we do know that tortoises are very accustomed to their home range.  Tortoises in their home range know where they can find fleeting pools of water during a rain shower, or where to find shelter from the sun when foraging during the hot daytime hours.  Messing with their routines probably does not have a positive effect.

This deceased tortoises was relocated from the solar project site in late 2014, and was found dead in July 2015.  The tortoise was relocated relatively far from its home territory, which was bulldozed by First Solar.  The tortoise almost certainly was killed by a predator.  This photo was provided by the Bureau of Land Management in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  Full documents provided by the Department of Interior can be found here.
A previous study of desert tortoise translocation from nearby Fort Irwin found that nearly half of the translocated animals have died.  Biologists are still not sure if that outcome is "good, bad, or typical," underscoring just how little we know about the impact of human activities on the species.  As previously noted on this blog, the translocation of tortoises is not the only experiment taking place because of the Silver State South project.  Biologists are also monitoring tortoise populations to see if the narrow strip of habitat remaining through the Ivanpah Valley just west of the Lucy Gray Mountains is sufficient to maintain genetic connectivity between two populations of the tortoise.  If the populations become genetically isolated, they may become less resilient and see a decline over time.

It is probably best to error on the side of caution and not push the desert tortoise and other desert wildlife past a tipping point.  Instead companies like First Solar advocate for the destruction of vast swaths of desert wildlands to make way for more utility-scale solar projects.

First Solar Not Interested in Sustainability
First Solar has sided with monopolistic utility companies in attacks on rooftop solar, funding a skewed study to portray rooftop solar as uneconomical (a study that was countered by the Institute for Local Self Reliance that points out the many benefits of distributed generation).  First Solar is apparently convinced that the price of electricity displayed on our utility bills is an accurate portrayal of the true costs of the energy we consume.  This is ironic for a company that owes its existence to a movement that has accelerated demand for renewable energy precisely because of the need to acknowledge the total costs shouldered by our planet for destructive energy sources.

Despite ample time and opportunity to find better locations for its Silver State South project, First Solar stubbornly moved forward with its destructive project in the Mojave desert.  First Solar ignored opportunities to double down on rooftop solar investments, or larger projects on already-disturbed lands.  

Construction crews for First solar bulldoze intact desert habitat for the Silver State South Solar project in the Ivanpah Valley.


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