Cumulative Impacts of Large-Scale Renewable Energy Development in the Western Mojave: Theoretical Effects on Physical Connectivity, Gene Flow, and Habitat Fragmentation

Abstract:

To help slow our contribution to climate change, California’s Governor has issued an executive order requiring an unprecedented one-third of statewide electricity production to come from renewable sources by 2020. California’s West Mojave Desert contains ample renewable energy resources and undeveloped expanses, thus many large-scale renewable projects have been proposed for the region. Such renewable energy development, however, will have ecological consequences of its own, including fragmentation of sensitive ecosystems, and barriers to species movement and gene flow.

This project examines the cumulative impacts of large-scale renewable energy development, urban expansion, and climate change on two of the Mojave’s flagship species: the bighorn sheep and desert tortoise. The results indicate that climate change impacts to species connectivity can be compounded by renewable energy developments, which decrease core and highly suitable habitat and can act as major obstacles to migration and gene flow. To help maintain connectivity within the West Mojave, renewable energy planners can reconsider developing projects within critical or highly suitable habitat, within connectivity pathways, and surrounding important source populations and climate refugia for the bighorn sheep metapopulation. Conservation organizations can prioritize existing landholdings important to connectivity, consider purchasing additional land or easements to protect connectivity, and support planning efforts by providing expertise to conduct additional connectivity analyses.

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