Utility-scale solar power is growing rapidly in Southeastern states, requiring the solar industry—which grew up in California and the Southwest—to develop new environmental management strategies to take into account different terrain and species.
A prime example of a Southeastern wildlife species that must be managed on utility-scale solar projects is the gopher tortoise. This keystone species can excavate underground burrow networks more than 20 feet deep and 50 feet long, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), providing habitat for about 360 other species, from snakes and frogs to oppossums and armadillos.
But as hospitable as this reptile is to other creatures, development and agriculture haven’t been kind to its habitat, resulting in poor reproductive success. It is listed as threatened by Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, and federally listed in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama east of the Tombigbee and Mobile rivers. In 2011, it became a candidate for federal listing throughout its range east of Mobile Bay.
E & E has identified, protected and relocated gopher tortoises on two solar projects in Florida to date. “Undoubtedly they’ll be present in other projects,” said Sean Meegan, E & E’s chief biologist. “They can be found in deep sandy soil habitats that are more open and therefore suitable for utility-scale solar.” They are also frequently present in any new linear projects such as pipelines and transmission lines.
A nocturnal species mostly active at dusk and dawn, gopher tortoises must be carefully located and removed prior to construction. The most common method involves a backhoe operator working in tandem with a biologist. “The biologist typically uses a ¾-inch diameter PVC pipe and works it down into the burrow until it stops at a turn,” said Meegan. “He or she guides the excavator to dig slowly, and every few feet, the biologist jumps into the hole, digs with a shovel and maneuvers the PVC pipe further into the burrow.”
When the biologist feels a tortoise at the end of the PVC pipe, the excavator backs off entirely and the biologist works carefully until he or she can reach the 8- to 12-pound creature and pull it out.
A less expensive but more time-consuming method is to install a series of pit traps, then monitor those over time, according to Meegan. In Florida, the biologists who find and trap the tortoises must be authorized as a Gopher Tortoise Agent by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
After they’re trapped, the gopher tortoises are either relocated to adjacent land or to a certified habitat bank elsewhere. “It really depends on whether there’s adjacent land available,” said Meegan. “For our project with the U.S. Department of the Navy at the Navy Outlying Landing Field (OLF) at Holley, Florida, we relocated a number of gopher tortoises to fenced temporary enclosures outside of the solar project footprint to avoid impacts to this species during construction.”
“Each of the relocation areas was assessed prior to construction, in order to estimate a carrying capacity for each area, based on presence of forage and suitable burrowing areas," said Meegan. “Once construction is complete, the fences will be pulled and the gopher tortoises will able to relocate within the installation boundary.”
For a project on commercial property in Jacksonville, E & E will relocate gopher tortoises to a habitat bank. The habitat banks are authorized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and allowed to receive tortoises up to a certain number.
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