Desert tortoises can face a pretty tough life.
Already considered a threatened species because of human encroachment, the slow-moving reptile faces new risks from solar plants and formerly friendly badgers.
The Yellow Pine solar project outside Parhump will cover more than 3,000 acres as it provides power sufficient for 100,000 households. However, that land is already home to desert tortoises, and nearly 150 of them were relocated to allow for construction.
Roy Averill Murray, a desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, said relocating tortoises from one area provides an opportunity to restore their presence elsewhere.
“We are looking at areas where we want to have higher tortoise populations,” Murray told State of Nevada. “By adding tortoises, we can reinvigorate or augment that existing population.”
Most of the relocated tortoises are equipped with radio transmitters that allow wildlife officials to monitor them. That long-distance tracking allowed the discovery several years ago of a California tortoise population that was being used as prey by badgers.
Murray said this was surprising since tortoises and badgers typically co-exist without incident.
“Many desert animals “seek shelter from the heat in burrows, and so badgers will use tortoise burrows,” he said. “They will cohabitate together just fine most of the time.”
He said the issue of badgers attacking tortoises arose again recently after the reptiles were moved from the solar plant site.
“Shortly after the translocation from Yellow Pine, again, one or two, badgers apparently decided that they were hungry for tortoises,” Murray said.
He said about 30 tortoises were lost to badgers this spring, but none have been killed in a month.
Nevada's two-decade drought could have played a role in the deaths of the tortoises, the founder of an environmental group contends.
"Badgers are not known to commonly prey on desert tortoises," said Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch. "It is possible that drought conditions have driven them to extreme measures."
Emmerich said Nevada's expected rush of solar development could pose grave risks for the tortoise, which the federal government declared a threatened species in 1990.
"There are four other big solar applications in the area," he said. "We obviously are very concerned."
Basin and Range Watch contends the path to a renewable energy future lies closer to home.
“We need to not place the large-scale solar projects on healthy, functioning Mojave Desert scrub that’s tortoise habitat,” said Laura Cunningham, also a co-founder of the group. “Put these solar projects on rooftops, over carports, and on already disturbed land.”
Emmerich told State of Nevada the toll the drought has taken on the desert can easily be observed.
“In most of the range of the Joshua trees, except for maybe a few populations in the north, we’re seeing areas on the bark that's completely eaten by rodents. And those rodents are seeking moisture,” he said. “If you go out and you look in the desert and you look at a lot of the shrubs, they're just not leafing out. And because of that, there's just not a lot of food out there for other organisms and animals.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service's Murray said he and his team have not made additional efforts to protect the remaining tortoises, but they are keeping watch on them. One suggestion to protect the tortoises is to coat their shells with something badgers find distasteful.
“That's one of the things that we've been brainstorming after this happened,” he said.
Roy Averill Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service; Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich, co-founders, Basin and Range Watch
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