The pressure boiled over after company biologists discovered an adult female tortoise with its carapace crushed in October 2010, during a media tour of the site. Biologists concluded that a vehicle struck the animal and ordered it euthanized.
A flurry of emails ensued. Steve DeYoung, then a BrightSource vice president, wrote to a federal biologist: "How in God's name could anyone blame us? It is completely unconscionable that we would be blamed for this. I simply cannot sit back and watch this happen."
Ultimately, the death was not attributed to the project. But other mishaps occurred, many of them documented in 36 boxes of project files stored at the Bureau of Land Management office in Needles.
The reports read like medical charts: a juvenile had his right forelimb gnawed by rodent, a tortoise died of heat distress after being caught in the black plastic erosion fencing, hatchlings were set upon by army ants, which killed four babies still in their eggs and injured four others.
The project's bottom line took on an inevitable arc: as tortoise numbers rose, costs went up.
BrightSource, which was paying to have as many as 100 biologists to be on the site at one time, began seeing red. The company warned that tortoise mitigation was jeopardizing Ivanpah's viability. In an email to a BLM official, DeYoung complained that tortoises were at that point costing the company as much as $40 million. "This truly could kill the project," he wrote.
BrightSource lawyer Jeffrey D. Harris wrote to the California Energy Commission to suggest that if the Ivanpah crashed because of tortoises, the state's renewable energy goals would meet the same fate.
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By February 2011, all parties realized that the site contained more tortoises than allowed under the permit. Two months later, state and federal agencies ordered construction suspended until a new biological assessment could be completed.
When BLM officials inquired about the slow pace of the work, Amy Fesnock, BLM's lead biologist for endangered species, sent an email up the BLM food chain stating that many requests for data were apparently being ignored by BrightSource.
Referring to BrightSource Energy by the shorthand BSE, Fesnock wrote, "The 'crisis' that this project is in is purely of BSE's making. If we continue to reward their bad behavior — contorting ourselves to solve the problems that they keep creating, we have no hope of them not creating a new problem for us to solve."
Fesnock told The Times recently that her issues with former BrightSource project managers had been resolved and called the work of the company's biologists "phenomenal."
At Ivanpah today, 166 adult and juvenile tortoises have been collected and moved to a nine-acre holding facility. The objective is to release them into the "wild," on the other side of the fence from the solar facility.
Tools of survival
Desert tortoises were not always so scarce. They thrived in a harsh environment with the few tools nature provided.
To ward off predators, they spritz pungent bladder contents around their burrows, where they spend as much as 95% of their lives. When tortoises hear thunder — signaling a desert storm — they come topside and lower the side of their shells like bulldozer blades to gouge out water catchments. They can increase their body mass by 30% to 40% by guzzling water in this way, a quenching that can sustain them for more than two years without another drop.
The animals were once so abundant that Southern Californians used to bring the small ones home from desert trips as souvenirs, and the animals lived quiet lives in suburban backyards.
Once the tortoise was added to the endangered species list in 1990, however, a reverse diaspora occurred. Panicked moms and dads streaked back to the Mojave to release the now-protected tortoise. The story does not end there, nor does it end well. The former captives brought with them disease that spread and killed tortoises across the Mojave.
About the same time, desert recreation increasingly began to include off-road vehicles, which crushed either the animals or their burrows. The dust kicked up by the machines exacerbated the animal's propensity for upper respiratory infections.
As Southern California's exurbs marched east, trash dumps came with them, bringing ravens — one of the tortoise's most effective predators. Finally, roadways crossing the desert to connect population centers and provide for recreation along the Colorado River laid down an asphalt moat that, as much as anything, defined the new de facto tortoise habitat.