Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2017

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How the tortoise became politicized

Energy developers, activists for threatened species still searching for a happy medium

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Steve Marcus

A Mojave Desert tortoise is shown in a quarantine area at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas on Friday, Sept. 2, 2011. The tortoise, some kept by people as pets, will be returned to the wild when they are healthy enough to leave.

The desert tortoise’s lobbyists are well-known to solar developers and the country’s largest utility. They have successfully battled wind farms and rancher Cliven Bundy. As a threatened species, the squat land crawler continually frustrates developers and engages environmentalists as a rallying symbol.

After years of litigation, a Virginia-based company confirmed in late April that it was abandoning a project to build 87 wind turbines in Searchlight because of environmental concerns over the golden eagle and the desert tortoise. It’s typically not the only reason a development might die, but the desert tortoise often is thrown prominently into the mix.

It starts with a project proposal in the Mojave Desert, said Kobbe Shaw, executive director of the Tortoise Group, which advocates on behalf of wild and captive tortoises. Environmentalists often worry about the impact to the tortoises. Then there’s litigation, and after that, even if the project is approved, companies must pay the county a $550-per-acre mitigation fee for protection.

“Tortoises are always going to be a big consideration for anyone trying to develop an energy project,” said David Becker, an attorney for environmentalists opposed to the Searchlight project.

But it’s wrong to think of the tortoise as a “power player,” he said. Instead, he said we should think of it as a threatened species that remains vulnerable to extinction.

How it got to be this way dates back nearly three decades, when the federal government began classifying the species as endangered (in 1990, it changed that classification to threatened). Shortly thereafter, the Bureau of Land Management cordoned off large parcels of land to protect it and other threatened species, a move that rankled Bundy because it eliminated grazing near his property. Bundy told The Washington Post in 1993 that it was a “land grab.” When Bundy’s feud with the federal government came to a standoff in 2014, the desert tortoise emerged as a flash point for Bundy’s supporters, who criticized the focus on the species.

“The tortoise got dragged into that, much to my chagrin,” Shaw said.

Shaw laments the politicization of the desert tortoise. Solar and wind farm developers often are driven to the desert, where in many places there is continuous sunshine, a frequent breeze, cheap land and ample space. Upon this land roams the desert tortoise, which ecologists say is crucial for determining the health of the Mojave Desert. It is considered a bellwether species, allowing scientists to mark environmental change.

Shaw, whose organization has helped deliver pet tortoises to Gov. Brian Sandoval and Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, said he believes there is a way for tortoises and developments to coexist.

“This is a really tough position for environmental groups to take,” he said. “This is clean energy. But at the same time, it is uprooting some desert tortoises. There is a happy medium somewhere.”

In the Searchlight case, conservationists emphasized that the project was being planned in an area with one of the highest concentrations of desert tortoises, said Becker, an attorney in the case. “They located the project in one of the most important tortoise habitats in the state,” he added.

Many clean energy projects have been successfully developed in areas where there are desert tortoises present, said Sarah Propst, executive director of the Interwest Energy Alliance. “State and federal law is in place to ensure adequate protections, when appropriate,” she wrote in an email.

But Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress and the owner of a pet tortoise, said legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., could hurt the population. The Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act would give states control over how threatened species are protected and limit how environmentalists could contest designations in federal court. Heller’s office said the bill would not affect the desert tortoise because it is protected by the state.

If anything, Shaw said the tortoise population could use more resources. Although much attention is paid to wild desert tortoises, he said captive tortoises face equally pressing issues. Due to backyard breeding, Clark County’s captive tortoise population has swelled in recent years. The Tortoise Group the area is home to a few hundred thousand desert tortoises, Shaw said. Tortoises can’t be released into the wild because some carry a pathogen that would be fatal for those not given proper care.

Shaw said it is important for the public to understand that even though the tortoise is a threatened species, captive tortoises can be adopted. Many people are afraid to take them, but he said they make great pets and hibernate half of the year. Shaw added: “These guys have personalities.”

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