Desert turtles are in real danger. The road to extinction is paved with solar panels, cannabis and hungry crows


Here’s how you recognize a desert turtle when you see one: it’s the thing that seems like it can’t survive in the desert. They crawl with these piston feet, like a stepladder that has somewhere to go. They look as old as they are. But also, one way or another, even with the shell, they are vulnerable.

After 15 to 20 million years of wandering this land, the desert tortoise is in danger of extinction.

This is bad not only for the turtle, but also for the desert. Indeed, as a key species, the turtle and its burrows are essential to the health of the entire desert ecosystem.

“Little foxes, owls and even coyotes will reuse their burrows, so they are very important for the survival of other species as well,” says Sophia Osho, executive administrator of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee. Osho leads a tour of the Desert Turtle Research Natural Area (DTRNA), a mosaic of desert plains outside of California City.

In the Desert Turtle Research Natural Area outside of California City, fences and signs are essential for habitat protection. And since people cut fences and erect panels, constant maintenance is also essential. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds.

We are here looking for turtles, but I have no hope: they spend 95% of their time in their burrows, and it is misting season.

(In winter, you know what turtle rescuers do? Put them in a cardboard box, seal it, and stick it in a corner of the garage until spring. True story.)

Out of sight, out of mind: The desert, and its fate, is more or less unknown to the public. But a threat to the turtle is a threat to the desert. And right now there are more threats than ever.

Who does the sun belong to ?

On the one hand, solar energy. Giant solar panels come into play and desert ecosystems are collapsing. Solar companies clear the desert and install fences, then install panels that require a lot of water and reject natural regrowth.

But that’s all for good use, right? A solar farm is basically a big machine that converts the sun’s energy into air conditioning and Netflix. The desert is just a big machine that converts the sun’s energy into turtles and creosote. Why shouldn’t he do something useful for us instead?

In 2009, the Obama administration prioritized renewable energy development projects on federal lands. The resulting construction boom damaged Mojave habitats in California and Nevada. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds.

“I can’t think of anything less logical than destroying the last wilderness we have here in California, which are our deserts, to develop solar power, when we have so many places that can serve as environments. ideal receptors that don’t require this level of destruction of nature, ”says Rebecca Hernandez, an environmentalist at the University of California, Davis.

His research suggests that all of California’s solar needs could be met by putting solar projects on places we’ve already ruined, like the rooftops of huge warehouses and Amazon distribution centers. But they could also go to the so-called “brownlands”, which include already degraded farmland.

It is a priority for Erec DeVost. He leads the permits for Los Angeles-based solar developer 8Minute Energy.

“We’re kind of looking to balance the benefits and impacts of our site,” he says. “Obviously, biology is an important part of this. We try to look for degraded land or land that is not otherwise excellent habitat for sensitive species. “

8Minute Energy has 50 projects in the United States, including seven in Kern County alone, where DTRNA is located.

He says, yes, they do look at rooftops and pastures, but large solar projects ideally need large, empty areas with lots of sunlight, like the desert.

The entrance to the Desert Turtle Research Natural Area is visible outside of California City. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds.

Make way for humans!

But Brendan Cummings, director of conservation for the Center for Biological Diversity, says solar power is just a problem.

“The desert turtle was in trouble before we even started to think about setting up solar projects in the desert,” he says. “It was dying the death of a thousand cuts from all kinds of impacts, including small-scale development and large-scale development in the Western Mojave on private land.”

And this has been going on since the passage of the first horse-drawn carriages. Their marks are still visible, if you know how to look.

“Some of the stagecoach routes, the main routes through the desert, you can still see the impacts,” says Kristin Berry, a scientist at the Western Ecological Research Center. Much of what we know about the Desert Turtle, and the troubles it finds itself in, comes from its research.

She has been studying the desert since 1971. She explains that turtle habitat has been reduced by urban development, sheep grazing, military installations, people running around in all-terrain vehicles, as well as invasive species, which crowd out native plants and are more prone to forest fires. The roads and highways are extremely dangerous.

Although it is illegal to collect desert turtles, many relief organizations allow licensed citizens to give rebellious or injured turtles a home. Photo by Sophia Osho.

Very bad too: the common raven, which followed us humans and our precious dumpsters in the desert and now preying on juvenile turtles. We have helped them here by installing power transmission pylons, which they use as nesting sites.

Half a century of research shows that turtle populations throughout Mojave have steadily declined over the years. Where there were once dozens of turtles per square kilometer, there may be only a few left. In almost half of the areas studied, the population is so low that there are not enough turtles to breed. In other words, the desert tortoise is on the verge of extinction.

To both study and protect them, Berry and others created the DTRNA, this 40 square mile reserve where we searched in vain for turtles.

Berry says there is no one to blame. “Not all humans are bad guys and development isn’t just bad guys, it’s essential for a growing population.”

But things don’t look good.

“Well, the desert tortoise is headed for extinction. And certainly, there are some areas that no longer have viable populations that can be maintained in the future, due to the low numbers, ”she said. “And I think that will be true not only with the turtle, but also with other species.”

To help promote regrowth on vehicular trails, environmentalists are creating “vertical mulch” – using branches of dead creosote bushes to erect natural-looking barriers to off-road traffic. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds.

The Wild West is alive and well

Much of the Mojave Desert is on federal land, which means it falls under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which must balance turtles, solar development, and recreational use like all-terrain vehicles. .

Have you ever seen the movie “Mad Max”?

“Last year for Thanksgiving, 250,000 people came to the desert for entertainment,” Osho said. “So there was actually a cloud in the atmosphere over the biker desert. … I’ve never seen anything like it. There were only small RV towns in all this desert.

Fun fact: A BLM representative recently suggested to Osho that when the Desert Turtle Preservation Committee orders new signs, they should poke holes in them, because apparently this reduces other people are making holes in them.

What I’m telling you is: Tortoise Country is rough. Within a few hours of driving, we saw campsites with sofas and TVs, a Volkswagen spilled on its back like a turtle, and cannabis growing, which is illegal on federal lands.

Next to the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area is a large abandoned cannabis crop. These crops require massive amounts of water and are illegal on federal lands. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds.

“As soon as you cross the desert, the rule of law is an aspiration rather than a reality,” Cummings says of the authorization of uncontrolled urban development and the illegal cultivation of cannabis on federal lands.

“In the United States, we would like to view our agencies and governments as functional and consistent with the rule of law. But the Bureau of Land Management operates largely as if it is already a failed state. It just doesn’t follow the law, it doesn’t enforce the law.

I asked the BLM representatives about this – if they think it’s a failed state. They would not respond, but in a statement, the agency says that when it discovers a cannabis crop, it works with local government and law enforcement to eradicate it.

As with all people who ride mountain bikes?

“When you are dealing with an individual project that is presented to you, it can be very difficult to find that balance of multipurpose mandate between developing renewable energy and then conserving species and habitats and the recreational uses that are really. important in our wilderness, ”says Amy Fesnock, BLM biologist.

BLM is responsible for 10.8 million acres – all of these different priorities. Before 2016, development projects in the desert were taken on a case-by-case basis. But when the Obama administration prioritized renewable energy development on federal lands a decade ago, the BLM began to develop a plan to regulate it all. It’s the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, the DRECP. The goal is to manage development in seven counties in California, where to put projects, what areas are off-limits, that sort of thing.

The Bureau of Land Management has set aside a lot of land for protection: 6.5 million acres for conservation versus about 400,000 acres for development.

In a way, you could say that this is all the result of the best intentions: we want clean energy but it requires land. We have decriminalized cannabis, which has led to illegal cultivation. We have federal lands open to the public because they belong to us, but we are terrible guests. What we touch in the desert, we hurt. When it comes to desert turtles, it can be us or them.

The things you see in the desert… Sophia Osho checks out an overturned Volkswagen in Mojave. Photo credit by R. Reynolds.


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