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Is the Desert Tortoise the New Spotted Owl?

Republicans have a new animal to hate as a liberal mascot: the threatened desert tortoise. Energy entrepreneurs want to put solar plants in the seemingly barren deserts of the southwest, especially on cheap government land. But conservation groups say this is the last hold-out of what they call a charismatic animal that used to all the way to Los Angeles.

Early settlers could have found as many as 1,000 turtles per square mile. That means if you had a football field with endzones, you’d probably find a couple of them. The uselessness of this land is what makes it so wonderful for the tortoises, which have been decimated by cattle grazing, auto accidents, off-roading, an illness caught from released pets,  rattlesnake roundups and just general development. It’s also what seems to infuriate conservatives, who don’t want this animal–which you can barely see because it spends 95% of its life underground–messing up the first decent attempts at massive solar plants.

“If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it,” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked. Heavy equipment would crush the underground dwellers. If you move them, they try to go back to their old home and get eaten by coyotes. The Army tried to move about 1,000 of them when it expanded Fort Irwin and it was a disaster.

So far there isn’t an overall policy, so we’re likely to see these skirmishes  with every one of hundreds of projects. On March 10, Pacific Energy and Gas signed a contract to buy energy from Desert Sunlight Solar. The big deal so far was Brightsource, which got a federal loan guarantee after scaling back its project. Its five page press release on the  guarantee does not once mention the tortoise–which says a lot about the bitterness of the dispute. And their plant would only require moving 25 animals–2.5% of the number the army was going to.

Diane Feinstein adding some land to national parks and putting restrictions on hundreds of thousands of other acres to save the tortoise. In return she would speed up the approval process for solar plants. Michael Balchunas, in great article explaining the epic battle for Sunpluggers, says her plan would only impact about 10% of California’s 200 proposed solar plants, but there is a larger cultural issue between those who think of the desert as a fragile eco-wonder and those who experience it as a “rough-and-tumble terrain in which people live and work, direct heirs to the no-nonsense settlers of earlier centuries.”

I don’t know if Feinstein’s plan is the right one, but until there’s a plan, the tortoise is going to be the new spotted owl.

Where to See Turtles

Tortoise Fun Facts:

The California Turtle and Tortoise Club, which has been working to educated the public and conserve habitat for the 290 species of turtle (they live in water) and tortoise (the ones that live on land) since 1964.

The U.S. Geological Survey just made a 30-minute online movie, The Heat is On: Desert Tortoises and Survival, to explain why the tortoise is in such trouble.

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1 comment to Is the Desert Tortoise the New Spotted Owl?

  • Anonymous

    Why are you doing the tortoise the disservice of calling it the next spotted owl? I thought this sight was supposed to be in favor of the critters. You should head out to the desert in the next month. It may be one of the most beautiful desert months in recent history. Lots of rain means green, flowering rich desert. Thank you rain.