Sarah McBride for NPR
Biologists are relocating species such as this juvenile Mojave Desert tortoise due to the planned construction of BrightSource Energy's solar plant in southern California.
Biologists are relocating species such as this juvenile Mojave Desert tortoise due to the planned construction of BrightSource Energy's solar plant in southern California. Sarah McBride for NPR
Mercy Vaughn crouches over a young tortoise peeking out from its burrow near a creosote bush in California's Mojave Desert.
The area is home to rare species, including the threatened desert tortoise. But a giant solar plant is under construction in the vast wilderness area.
To help save the animal, the company building the plant, BrightSource Energy, had to agree to a lot of conditions, including reptile relocation.
Vaughn, a biologist from Texas, and her colleague Peter Woodman are leading a team of 50 biologists hired to survey the site over and over before construction begins. They have to keep track of every single tortoise.
"This is one that was walking down the middle of the road when it was spotted by one of the monitors," Woodman says. "Luckily, we've got a radio transmitter on it now."
He's looking at an adult female tortoise; she's about the size of a dinner plate, and the transmitter is glued to her shell. It almost looks like a stray twig.
Checkups For Tortoises
The biologists also do health assessments, which include weighing, measuring and checking the tortoises for unusual markings, and taking a blood sample.
Tortoises don't really like that kind of attention, and sometimes, they let the scientists know.
"They will pee," Woodman says. "And they can pee copiously if they have a full bladder."
He's talking from personal experience: "It does have an odor. It's a musky scent."
Controversy Over Relocation
All this health care comes ahead of a major relocation. The tortoises can't stay where construction crews might harm them, so the biologists are moving them to pens to ride out the desert winter. In the spring, they'll try relocating them to the wild.
BrightSource is spending more than $40 million to protect plants and wildlife. That includes buying acres of land to keep as nature preserves.
Compared to the more than $2 billion the solar plant will cost, though, it's a drop in the bucket. And conservationists like Michael Connor of the Western Watershed Project say that the millions aren't getting the job done.
"Those tortoises will slowly die away," Connor says. "It's very unlikely we'll have a sustainable population."
The biologists are doing everything they can to prove Connor wrong, including helping tortoises with problems that have nothing to do with BrightSource.
Hazards Of The Road
Vaughn spots a tortoise with a crushed shell that is trying to move its legs, but they barely wriggle. It's the type of injury tortoises get when an all-terrain vehicle or motorcycle accidentally rides over them.
"Pete! We have a tortoise that's been hit," she beckons.
Another biologist comes and drives the injured tortoise to a shelter in Las Vegas where vets will try to save it. The bill could run thousands of dollars — all on the solar company’s tab.