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Conservation Groups Ask Interior Department to Cancel Solar Project over Desert Tortoise Impacts

For Immediate Release

Contact: Kevin Emmerich, Basin and Range Watch, 775-764-1080,

Laura Cunningham, Western Watersheds Project, 775-513-1280,

March 18, 2024

Conservation Groups Ask Interior Department to Cancel Solar Project over Desert Tortoise Impacts

Las Vegas, NV – A coalition of organizations and individuals are requesting that the Department of the Interior (Interior) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cancel the proposed large-scale solar energy project located south of Pahrump, Nevada called the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project because of significant impacts to the imperiled Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).

Irreversible impacts would occur for wildlife, desert flora, water resources, visual resources, and the quality of life for residents. Conservation groups are requesting that Interior Secretary Haaland and the BLM withdraw the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project located on public lands south of Pahrump, Nevada.

The Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project is a proposed 400-megawatt solar photovoltaic facility on 2,400 acres that would destroy nearly 4 square miles of Mojave Desert habitat for solar panels, battery storage banks, and new transmission lines. The project is one of 6 large-scale solar projects and transmission upgrades either built or proposed for Mojave Desert habitat on public lands in the area.

The project site is beautiful Mojave Desert over 3,000 feet in elevation, receives 5 to 10 inches of rain annually and supports a healthy, reproducing desert tortoise population.

The proposed solar project partly overlaps with a closed grazing allotment that was meant to be conservation mitigation land for the tortoise in exchange for urban growth over Las Vegas Valley.

The Environmental Impact Statement for the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project estimates that there are 114 adult desert tortoises on the site. Usually, the number of juvenile tortoises is more than the number of adults on any given habitat site. The US Fish and Wildlife Service only requires that adult tortoises be moved and not juveniles due to the difficulty of finding dollar-coin-sized juvenile tortoises, but this means that hundreds of juvenile and hatchling desert tortoises will likely be crushed or buried alive by large earth-moving equipment. Nearly 3 times as many tortoises were found on the adjacent 3,000-acre Yellow Pine Solar Project site than predicted by project biologists who used the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s survey protocol for estimating tortoise numbers. Tortoises were relocated on a record-breaking drought year and 33 were killed by badgers in their new location.

“Approval of the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project will likely contribute to this on-going extinction trend by digging up and moving over 100 adult desert tortoises,” said Kevin Emmerich, Co-founder of Basin and Range Watch. “Associated with desert tortoises are dozens of other species of plants and animals that will be harmed by this project. The desert tortoise is a true indicator species of the overall health of Mojave Desert habitat.”

The desert tortoise was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 and has seen sharp population declines in several of its Recovery Units due to causes including solar energy development and production. Starting in 2009, utility-scale solar energy applications have been accepted on thousands of acres of tortoise habitat throughout the range of the species. Over 75,000 acres of this habitat has been developed for solar energy so far with more solar projects proposed for development.

The desert tortoise density predicted for the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project is estimated to be 5.6 per square kilometer. The tortoise density of this project site surpasses 17 of the established US Fish and Wildlife Service designated Critical Habitat units for the desert tortoise.

In total, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the desert tortoise has seen a 37 percent range-wide decline from 2004 to 2014 during counts, and this downward trend is continuing in most populations that are needed for survival and recovery of the species or is not showing improvement. For the last few years of monitoring data collected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the data indicated that four of five have tortoise recovery units have population densities below the population viability threshold.

“We support solar project construction on already disturbed lands, and distributed solar in the existing built environment,” said Laura Cunningham, biologist and California director with Western Watersheds Project. “This Mojave Desert ecosystem is a large, intact landscape that should be protected, and not developed for energy production when better alternatives exist.”

Solar energy does not need to be built on the most sensitive habitats. Alternative locations include rooftops of residential and commercial/industrial buildings, degraded lands, and well-planned Solar Energy Zones on public lands that could be used to avoid these impacts. Enough important habitat has been compromised for utility-scale energy and we have the technology and ability to avoid these habitats.

Basin and Range Watch is a nonprofit working to conserve the deserts of Nevada and California and to educate the public about the diversity of life, culture, and history of the ecosystems and wild lands of the desert. 

Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West. 


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