Variance Process Protocol for Desert Tortoise
The BLM has adopted the following protocol for variance applications in priority desert tortoise connectivity habitat.
Designated desert tortoise conservation areas are excluded from the BLM's Solar Energy Program. These areas include, but are not limited to, critical habitat for desert tortoise and specially designated areas such as BLM-designated Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) that specifically identified desert tortoise as one of the Relevant and Important Values, National Parks, National Recreation Areas, and National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs).
Desert Tortoise Connectivity Areas
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has identified certain other areas that may be important for desert tortoise connectivity (i.e., priority desert connectivity habitat). Recovering desert tortoises throughout their range requires that conservation areas be connected by habitat linkages in which tortoises reside and reproduce. Such areas will need to be free of large-scale impediments from human activities. The BLM has excluded from the Solar Energy Program approximately 515,000 acres (2,084 km2) of land that coincides with priority desert tortoise connectivity habitat.
Maps of Desert Tortoise Connectivity Habitat
Maps and supporting information regarding priority desert tortoise connectivity habitat are available on the Solar PEIS project website.
Requirements for Projects Overlapping Desert Tortoise Connectivity Habitat
Developers that propose utility-scale solar energy projects in variance areas that overlap priority desert tortoise connectivity habitat identified on USFWS maps will be required to meet with the BLM and USFWS early in the process as part of the
preliminary meetings to receive instructions on the appropriate desert tortoise survey protocols and the criteria the BLM and USFWS will use to evaluate results of those surveys (see list below). Applicants will be required to work with the BLM and USFWS to survey an appropriately sized area (which may be three to four times larger than the proposed project area) in an attempt to find a suitable project location or configuration that minimizes impacts on desert tortoises. The BLM and USFWS will discourage applications in the highest priority areas, given the anticipated high conflict, higher survey costs, and high mitigation requirements.
Survey and Data Collection Activities
The survey and data collection activities listed below will facilitate the assessment of site-specific data and ground truthing of the information provided in the USFWS map to determine whether a site is an acceptable location for utility-scale solar energy development.
- Tortoise density and distribution surveys. Desert tortoise density and distribution surveys will be conducted consistent with approved survey protocols available on the USFWS website and will be conducted by USFWS-approved desert tortoise authorized biologists unless the USFWS determines authorized biologists are unnecessary. The spacing and intensity of surveys will be determined in consultation with the BLM and USFWS. Two consecutive survey passes of the potential project development area will be required; the orientation of the second survey pass will be determined in consultation with the BLM and USFWS to determine the best orientation based on factors such as topography and glare. Once a refined project site has been selected within the larger survey area, additional surveys could be recommended to ensure effective avoidance of desert tortoises.
- Habitat quality analyses. Evaluate the presence and condition of native vegetation communities (including herbaceous plants), soils, and so forth in the survey area.
- Tortoise connectivity studies. The methodologies for connectivity studies must be approved by the BLM and USFWS and peer reviewed by an accredited scientist prior to data collection. A first study should demonstrate that the linkage area and adjacent Tortoise Conservation Areas (TCAs) contain suitable tortoise habitat of sufficient size to support desert tortoise populations. If sufficient habitat is present, a second study should demonstrate that demographic and genetic connections can be maintained once the proposed project is developed. This should include evaluating existing barriers to connectivity and opportunities for tortoise-to-tortoise interactions at a local and regional scale and the availability of “live-in habitat.”
- Corridor width evaluation. Using the site-specific data collected, including desert tortoise density and distribution (from protocol surveys), habitat quality analysis, and the desert tortoise connectivity evaluation, an applicant should identify corridors that will adequately maintain the connectivity around the proposed project. Such corridors must be approved by the BLM and USFWS.
- Survey for areas suitable for tortoise translocation, if applicable.
Documentation of Desert Tortoise Impact Level, Mitigation, and Monitoring
In evaluating information provided by an applicant, the BLM and USFWS will consider cumulative effects and landscape-level information consistent with desert tortoise recovery goals and objectives and best available science to determine if a project will result in acceptable impacts on desert tortoise. The applicant must provide documentation to the satisfaction of the BLM and USFWS of the following, unless a project is otherwise determined by the BLM and USFWS to have acceptable impacts on desert tortoise:
- The project can be sited and constructed to allow for adequate connectivity corridors as determined by the BLM and USFWS that ensure that the project does not isolate or fragment tortoise habitat and populations;
- The proposed site contains low tortoise densities consistent with the best available information for the subject geographic area, including data on local desert tortoise densities, when available, and data from the long-term USFWS rangewide monitoring of the Mojave Population of the desert tortoise;
- The project will result in minimal translocation of adult and sub-adult tortoise to acceptable locations (>160 mm Midline Carapace Length) as determined by the BLM and USFWS;
- Any necessary mitigation will improve conditions within the connectivity area, and if these options do not exist, necessary mitigation will be applied toward the nearest tortoise conservation area (e.g., an ACEC for which tortoise had been identified in the Relevant and Important Criteria or critical habitat); and
- A plan is in place to effectively monitor desert tortoise impacts, including verification that desert tortoise connectivity corridors are functional. The required Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultation will further define this monitoring plan.