Hero in a Half-Shell, Tortoise Power

Mr. Tortoise hangs out in the road.

Mr. Tortoise hangs out in the road where we initially saw him.

The below one-page article appears in the June issue of Natural History Magazine. My first piece of writing published in hard copy! Extra points if you caught the oh-so-nerdy reference in the title.

Gusts of wind were slapping our camper van when my eagle-eyed wife cried “Watch out!” and I swerved around the desert tortoise on a road in the Mojave National Preserve. We jumped out next to a spiny cholla cactus to make sure no cars rocketed over its shell. Driving east from Los Angeles, we had been greeted by hundreds of spinning wind turbines in the western Mojave Desert. Now came the solar arrays, with swaths of panels and tall fences, where the desert tortoise carves out a delicate existence.

Collateral damage often comes up in discussions of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind. The effect of wind turbines on avian populations has enraged many a bird lover; giant solar farms, being installed on federal lands by the thousands of acres, take their toll, too. The $2.2 billion Bright-Source installation in the Ivanpah Valley east of L.A., which we drove past, was the first largescale solar project to colonize a tortoise habitat, and more are coming—such as the 3,000-acre Stateline Solar Farm. Desert biologists have been factored into the budget to tag, track, count, and preserve the tortoises. Yet I wonder if tortoises have much chance of survival in the transformed western Mojave.

Female tortoises start breeding at around fifteen to twenty years of age. Only an estimated 2 percent to 5 percent of all hatchlings survive to reach adulthood. Add to the gauntlet of birds, foxes, and other natural hazards in their path, human obstacles—from roads and off-road vehicles to habitat loss and fragmentation. According to Defenders of Wildlife, population decrease is most severe in the western Mojave, where tortoise numbers have declined by as much as 90 percent. Efforts are made to relocate tortoises six inches or larger found inside the solar farms to avoid harm from trucks—or starvation, since many installations scrape the ground clear of vegetation the animals need for shade and food. However, when I contacted Bureau of Land Management (BLM) biologist Larry LaPre, he said, “It is nearly impossible to find and locate the smaller juvenile tortoises, so many aren’t relocated.”

 Desert tortoises played a role in the brief celebrity of Cliven Bundy, the militant Nevada rancher whose clash with the BLM was not only over twenty years of unpaid grazing fees, but also over his incursion into tortoise habitat. On that score, the BLM’s treatment of Bundy’s ranch and of Nevada’s new solar farms betrays a double standard. Cattle do damage to tortoises, but solar farms also disrupt their habitat. For a final irony, Bundy’s ranch is right in the middle of a proposed solar farm, so large it could provide enough energy for 30 percent of California. For now, the solar projects proliferate and the desert tortoise’s survival, any way you cut it, rides entirely on how willing we are to slow down, swerve, or double back.


Lounging in the desert after a nice meal of flowers. (You can see them on his mouth.)

Lounging in the desert after a nice meal of flowers. (You can see them on his mouth.)

The desert backdrop that our tortoise friend lives in.

The desert backdrop that our tortoise friend lives in.