Magazine article Natural History

Speed Bumps

Magazine article Natural History

Speed Bumps

Article excerpt

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS

Gusts of wind were slapping our camper van when my eagleeyed 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. …

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