BY DAVID DANELSKI
A shy, endangered bird that inhabits the marshes along the Colorado River is at the center of notices filed Thursday by an environmental group that says President Barack Obama’s administration hasn’t protected the bird from commercial solar projects.
Two Yuma clapper rails have been found dead at solar plants in Riverside and Imperial counties in the past 13 months.
Exactly how many of the birds exist is unknown; estimates range from fewer than 450 to nearly 1,000.
The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, filed notices Thursday signaling the group’s plan to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which both had a role in approving the solar projects.
Representatives of the federal agencies declined to comment.
Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the center, said the dead rails were discovered at the Desert Sunlight solar plant in eastern Riverside County, near Joshua Tree National Park, and at Solar Gen 2 in Imperial County, southeast of Salton Sea.
The center contends that Fish and Wildlife and the BLM did not consider ways to protect Yuma clapper rails when the agencies oversaw biological and environmental reviews for the developments, which use photovoltaic panels to make electricity.
“These birds now are turning up dead at these sites, and no one was even looking it,” Anderson said.
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jane Hendron and the BLM’s Stephen Razo both said in emails that their agencies hadn’t had a chance to
review the notices and would not comment.
Such notices must be provided to federal agencies 60 days before a lawsuit can be filed in federal court.
Why the birds died is unknown because the carcasses were too decomposed to make a determination, Anderson said by telephone. But she said she suspects the birds may have collided with the photovoltaic panels.
“We are concerned the birds may perceive the solar arrays as lakes and try to land on them,” she said.
First Solar, which developed both projects, said in an emailed statement that the company takes such wildlife issues seriously and is “working on a broader level with wildlife agencies and industry groups to gather more information and to develop a measured approach to addressing concerns.”
YUMA CLAPPER RAIL
Description: 10-ounce, 14-inch-long water bird, gray brown, with a short tail, long beak and long legs
Habitat: Freshwater marshes
Range: Lower Colorado River, Salton Sea
Preferred food: Crayfish, clams, freshwater shrimp, fish and insects
Breeding: Monogamous; both parents assist in raising chicks
Numbers: Estimated population between 440 and 970
Threats: Habitat destruction, primarily from water flow management on the lower Colorado River; agricultural contaminants; exotic vegetation
Status: Declared endangered 1967
Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Center for Biological Diversity