By Miriam Raftery
March 17, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) – Could big energy projects proposed in East County lead to the decimation of federally endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep?
From 1972 to the present, the Carrizo Gorge band of these bighorns has plummeted from about 120 sheep to less than 40. “Off-road vehicles, trespassing cattle, poaching in the 1960s and ‘70s, drought, disease and Mountain Lion predation have worked together to push this population o the edge. We hope we can save this group before it is too late,” Mark Jorgensen, advisor to the Bighorn Institute and former Superintendent of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park wrote in the Desert News.
In his comments submitted on four solar projects proposed by Soitec in Boulevard, Jorgensen writes that “Construction of yet another group of solar projects will further impede the free movement of wildlife by reducing habitat connectivity and ruining wildlife corridors.” He further notes that Soitec’s sites are very near lands purchased and set aside specifically to protect species the endangered bighorn, golden eagles and other species in peril.
Federal bighorn habitat area is less than a mile (.8) from Soitec’s proposed LanEast solar site and about 1.5 miles from its Rugged Solar site. But sheep don’t recognize boundaries, and maytravel across the region in search of water and grazing.
Jorgensen writes that habitat for the sheep has already suffered major fragmentation by the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility, which he calls “an atrocity” which has had a “profound negative impact” on Anza Borrego Desert State Park. In addition he says the project “encroached upon a documented bighorn sheep lambing area” and “created a barrier to wildlife.”
Another deeply troubling concern is that Soitec plans to use massive amounts of groundwater and multiple experts have voiced concern that this would have severe impacts far beyond the project’s boundaries—drying up groundwater, watering holes and seeps that feed the grasses on which sheep graze.
Jacumba Planning Group Chair Howard Cook has called on officials to reject the Soitec projects and to further call a halt to any further project approvals until a two-year study of local bighorn populations now underway is completed. That study is being conducted by a bi-national team of biologists and veterinarians, who captured and radio collared over a dozen of the sheep last October in the Sierra Juarez mountains just south of the international border. Cook made the recommendations in his comments on the Soitec programmatic draft environmental report (PEIR).
“The Peninsular bighorn sheep is an endangered species whose two major populations could be permanently separated unless we protect its habitat and key bottleneck connections throughout the Peninsular Rage,” Bill Tippets, San Diego Project of the Nature Conservancy, reported, a San Diego Zoo press release on the study states. “Smaller, isolated populations are more susceptible to diseases and predation and are less resilient to climate change.”
The article further notes that populations of the sheep in Southern California and northern Mexico were once thought to be isolated, but recent field surveys by the San Diego Zoo Gobal and California Department of Fish and Wildlife prove that sheep do cross the border. But such crossing has been made increasingly difficult, between a border fence most of the way, and crossing two four-lane highways (I-8 in the U.S. and MX-2 in Mexico). The two-year study aims to provide critical data on bighorn sheep movement as well as connectivity of the population, genetics, and disease. A recent outbreak of pneumonia among bighorn in the Mojave Desert has further concerned biologists and reveals the vulnerability of having populations that are too small and isolated.
The Nature Conservancy has also voiced serious concerns over the Soitec projects, recommending that the County find the environmental impact report insufficient due to lack of adequate biological studies, among other reasons.
The Nature Conservancy states that an important regional conservation concern is what effects the project would have on animal movement in the area, but notes that Soitec’s PEIR acknowledges that no specific movement studies were conducted (Page 2.3-140 et seq.) Soitec further foundthat there are “no known or defined wildlife movement corridors on proposed project area and the proposed project as well as the other foreseeable project pose a cumulative impact that is less-than-significant to habitat linkages and wildlife corridors” according to the PEIR.
But the Nature Conservancy observes, “We believe that this conclusion is not supported by the information in the documents.” The environmental group called for wildlife studies to determine if, for example, wildlife is using undercrossing on or near the project sites that could be disrupted, forcing animals to use less safe crossing areas.
A photo taken by a hiker, Laurie Baker on January 1, 2014 (photo, right) and published in East County Magazine showed radio-collared bighorn sheep close to McCain Valley and Sacatone roads, not far from the Soitec sites and even closer to the Tule Wind wind project planned in McCain Valley. Yet the the draft environmental impact statement for Iberdrola Renewables' planned Tule Wind project in McCain Valley concludes that wind turbines are "located outside of critical habitat areas and will not have any detrimental impacts on sheep."
Finding proof of the endangered animals doesn't assure their protection, however. When Pattern Energy's Ocotillo Express Wind Facility was approved, the project's environmental report similarly concluded that the site was not bighorn habitat. The site was mysteriously delisted as critical bighorn habitat by the federal government when the wind project was proposed despite road signs warning motorists to beware of bighorn crossing and numerous statements by residents and biologists that the site was bighorn habitat.
When photos of a herd of bighorn on the project site were sent to then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, he issued take permits allowing up to 10 bighorn ewes and lambs to be killed, allowing the project to proceed at the expense of this critically endangered species, as ECM reported in a story titled “Silence of the Lambs.”
The Peninsular Bighorns are att risk of extinction, according to the Bighorn Institute.
Soitec spokesperson Karen Hutchens, asked about the bighorn sheep concerns, had this to say. “We received Mr. Cook’s comments on the EIR, and a full and detailed response will be included in the Final EIR which will be released later this year and will be available to the public prior to the Planning Commission Hearing. “
Soitec and Tule Wind, both massive projects, are far from the only ones proposed in the remaining Peninsular Bighorn Sheep range. Other projects pending or in the pipeline include Manzanita Wind, the Soitec/Tule Wind Gen-tie lie, SDG&E’s master special use permit within the Cleveland National Forest, Silverado Power, Rough Acres Foundation Campground, Rough Acres Rock Crushing and Cement Plant, Chapman Ranch McCain Valley Road Solar, and the Ewiiaapaapaayp Tule Wind extension. A Soitec alternative site proposed, Los Robles Ranch, is also in a bighorn habitat/corridor area, Cook states.
Peninsular Bighorn Sheep were listed as endangered by the U.S. government in 1998 due to populations declining for several reasons, including destruction of habitat – a problem that continues despite the supposed protections.
Yet in recognizing the imperiled status of the species, the listing was intended to encourage “conservation actions by Federal, State, and private agencies, as well as individuals,” the Bighorn Institute website states.
The Bighorn Institute concludes, “Peninsular bighorn sheep are a natural part of southern California's heritage and are important culturally and economically. Recognition as a federally listed endangered species is a significant step toward the recovery of Peninsular bighorn sheep, but the struggle is not yet over. Research, habitat acquisition, population augmentation, and of course, public support must continue in order for the goals of the recovery plan to be met.”
Unless the federal, state and local agencies cease the fast-tracking of massive energy projects through Bighorn terrain, however, the future survival of the species will be at even greater risk.