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Posted 29 March 2013 5:11 PM by Alan Bernheimer

The same GPS technology that increasingly triangulates our lives is helping scientists study the pronghorn antelope that roam the Carrizo Plain near the 3,500-acre Topaz Solar Farms project, currently under construction in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.

A California native, the pronghorn had disappeared from the Carrizo by the 1940s. They were re-introduced to the area in the 1980s and ’90s, intended as game animals. But they have not thrived in their old home as well as anticipated. The original population of some 250 has dwindled to less than half.

One thing scientists would like to know is why the northern herd, nearest to the solar project, has been doing better than the southern herd that inhabits the Carrizo Plain National Monument area, and Topaz has funded a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study to help them find out. Being built largely on formerly fenced farmland, the project includes movement corridors designed to allow pronghorn in the two herds to intermingle. This seems to be working, with existing ranch fences in the valley coming down as Topaz progresses. “The pronghorn have changed their pattern of congregation and movement,” said Sue Harvey of local conservation group North County Watch.

Now, thanks to additional funding from Topaz and North County Watch, scientists will conduct a research project using new GPS-equipped collars, which should provide data for research into why some of the pronghorn are not thriving by tracking the young pronghorn fawns and helping determine mortality causes.

Topaz Fawn

“The collars have mortality sensors, so biologists can promptly go see what happened if one dies,” said Dan Meade, principal Topaz biologist with the firm Althouse & Meade, whose staff is volunteering to assist the study.

“This study will be a valuable extension of previous research on the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Results from these studies will contribute to long-term regional management goals for pronghorn in this region,” said USGS scientist Kathy Longshore, who directs the study with additional help from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and volunteers from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly).

In addition to encouraging the pronghorn, the Topaz project design incorporates a number of measures to accommodate and encourage the federally listed San Joaquin kit fox. Kit fox-friendly fencing has a gap at ground level large enough for the fox, but excludes its major predator, the coyote. In addition, 200 escape burrows and 10 underground artificial dens are being provided. What is more, 17,000 acres of land outside the project is being preserved in perpetuity as habitat for kit fox, pronghorn and other species, much of which was previously disrupted each spring by agricultural tilling.