Sustainability Environment

Largest solar farm in the US would threaten this endangered species

the mojave desert

Story at a glance

  • The Gemini Solar Project is expected to generate up to 690 megawatts over the 7,100 acres of federal land, creating an estimated up to 2,000 jobs.
  • The proposed project would be constructed in a high-density tortoise migration corridor, resulting in an estimated loss of up to 215 adult tortoises and 900 or more juveniles.
  • An alternative plan is being proposed to mitigate the impact on the Mojave desert tortoise, but its potential effectiveness is unclear.

The proposed project for a new solar panel farm in Nevada poses a risk to the endangered Mojave desert tortoise, according to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

BLM is expected to approve the Gemini Solar Project by the end of March, according to Bloomberg. The proposed site for the project is in the Mojave Desert area northeast of Las Vegas and south of the Moapa River Indian Reservation, overlapping a sensitive desert tortoise migration corridor with a high-density population. 

About 200,000 Mojave desert tortoises remain in the wild, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Northeastern Mojave Recovery Unit is the only recovery unit with a currently increasing population of desert tortoises. Arevia Power’s proposed plan for the Gemini Solar project estimates up to 215 adult tortoises and 900 or more juveniles would be lost during construction and operation of the project, as there is no area where the tortoises could be relocated. 

An alternative plan proposed by the BLM would maintain vegetation across 65 percent of the area and suggests temporarily moving the tortoises off the land during construction. After the solar panels are installed, the tortoises would be reintroduced to the area. Fencing in some areas on the site would be lifted eight inches off the ground to allow tortoises to pass through the site.

However, it is unclear whether the Mojave desert tortoise would be able to acclimate to this new environment under the solar panels and their shade. Additionally, the species spends up to 95 percent of its life underground, making it difficult to ensure that all of them would be detected in any relocation effort. 

“It would certainly be a big experiment,” Roy C. Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Bloomberg. 

The desert tortoise may live 50 or more years in the wild and migration is essential for successful reproduction of the species. The health of the tortoise, the biggest reptile in the region, is an indicator of the overall viability of the Mojave desert ecosystem and the degree to which people have impacted it, Averill-Murray told Bloomberg. 

The project would also impact the critically endangered three-corner milkvetch as well as the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. 

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