The Tortoise And The Solar Plant: A Mojave Story BrightSource Energy is constructing a solar plant in the vast wilderness and has hired a team of biologists to care for and relocate the desert's indigenous tortoises. Despite the millions the company is spending on the effort, some conservationists say the tortoises will die.
NPR logo

The Tortoise And The Solar Plant: A Mojave Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Tortoise And The Solar Plant: A Mojave Story

The Tortoise And The Solar Plant: A Mojave Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A giant solar plant is going up in Californias Mojave Desert. The area is home to rare species, including the threatened desert tortoise. To help save the animal, the company building the plant, BrightSource Energy, had to agree to a lot of conditions, including reptile relocation.

Sarah McBride reports.

SARAH MCBRIDE: Mercy Vaughn is a biologist from Texas.

Ms. MERCY VAUGHN (Co-Owner and President, Sundance Biology, Inc.): Oh, look. It's so cute.

MCBRIDE: Vaughn is crouched over a young tortoise peeking out from its burrow near a creosote bush. She 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.

Mr. PETER WOODMAN (Biologist): This is one that was walking down the middle of the road when it was spotted by one of the monitors. Luckily, we've got a radio transmitter on it now.

MCBRIDE: Woodman is looking at an adult female tortoise. Shes about the size of a dinner plate, and the transmitter is glued to her shell.

Mr. WOODMAN: We've already done the health assessment on this one.

MCBRIDE: He means weighing it, measuring it, and taking a blood sample. Tortoises don't really like that kind of attention. And sometimes, they let the scientists know.

Mr. WOODMAN: They will pee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOODMAN: And they can pee copiously if they have a full bladder. It does have an odor, and it's a musky scent.

MCBRIDE: 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 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. But compared to the more than $2 billion the solar plant will cost, 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.

Dr. MICHAEL CONNOR (Western Watershed Project): Well, those tortoises will slowly die away. It's very unlikely that we're going to maintain viable populations.

MCBRIDE: The biologists are doing everything they can to prove Connor wrong. That includes helping tortoises with problems that have nothing to do with BrightSource.

Ms. VAUGHN: Oh no, a hurt one - sweetheart.

MCBRIDE: Biologist Mercy Vaughn has spotted a tortoise with a crushed shell. It's 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.

Ms. VAUGHN: Pete, we have a tortoise thats been hit.

MCBRIDE: 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 companys tab.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah McBride.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.