OCOTILLO – As the rising sun bathed the desert where a controversial 112-wind-turbine project is being built, dog handler John Grebenkemper walked his forensic dog Tuesday morning hoping it would detect the scent of cremated ancient Native Americans.
“They only (find) human remains’ scent,” Grebenkemper said referring to forensic dogs like his, Keyle, which was trained with old bones and dried teeth to identify human remains at archaeological sites such as the ones thought to be abundant in the Ocotillo area.
Grebenkemper was just one of a team of dog handlers commissioned to find potential cremation sites in what is the latest effort to preserve sensitive areas throughout the construction of the Ocotillo Wind Express facility.
The project’s developers, Pattern Energy, agreed Tuesday afternoon to hold off construction near three of the project’s towers after a number of additional potential cremation sites were discovered, said a spokesman with one of the area tribes.
The tribes have long maintained cultural and archaeological resources will be permanently affected by the project.
The Kumeyaay, the Cocopah and the Quechan are now funding this forensic effort, said Jeff Riolo, representative of the Manzanita Tribe of Kumeyaay Indians.
This is the second time forensic dogs have been hired to scan the desert in the past couple of months.
The team was successful in the first search back in May, as forensic dogs identified some seven potential archaeological sites within the project’s area.
And just last week, the Institute for Canine Forensics – which dub itself as the only historic human remains detection canine search team in the world – was hired again for a handful of days in hope of finding more sites.
“We couldn’t wait until the fall because by then everything will be disturbed,” said Riolo, who added that at least another nine potential archaeological sites were found since the team was rehired.
Native Americans call this area “the Valley of the Dead for a reason,” Riolo said. “There are (cremation sites) all over the place,” he said.
These potential archaeological sites are deemed “confirmed” when at least two dogs alert to an area, said Jennifer Peterson, a third-party monitor in charge of overseeing the forensic team on behalf of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Moments later, Institute for Canine Forensics dog handler and team leader Adela Morris saw her dog alerting to an area. She said she knows when the dog has found something of interest by observing the dog’s body language.
In this case, the dog sniffed around a particular area and then sat on a spot that Morris eventually marked with a flag and then with a Global Positioning System.
This is an event that occurred various times over the course of the morning, with one dog handler recording at least six potential sites a little before 7 a.m. Furthermore, at least two sites were seen corroborated by other dogs around that time.
Morris later that morning noted that it was still unclear how many sites were found and confirmed. By Tuesday afternoon, however, the number of potential cremation sites was a total of 32, “and those are confirmed hits,” said Robert Scheid, spokesman for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.
This figure comes by covering just 200 acres of the 12,000 total acres the turbine project will cover and includes May’s findings, he said.
The tribes are now posed with the question of presenting this area to the Native American Heritage Commission, an organization that can declare the area sanctified, he said.
But in the meantime, when sites are confirmed, a report is written and the information is provided to Pattern and the BLM. What Pattern then does is consider these sites “environmentally sensitive and they protect them,” Peterson said.
Protecting sites means an area is marked for exclusion, the project is redesigned and a proposed turbine is placed elsewhere, Riolo said while noting Pattern has so far responded to every finding submitted.
Pattern is aware of the canine search activity being conducted, according to a statement made through Pattern Energy’s Chief Executive Officer Mike Garland. Pattern has spent millions of dollars to identify cultural resources for several years, in compliance with the BLM, and has designed the project to minimize impacts on all cultural resources, Garland said.
Pattern remains committed to avoiding impacts to known cultural resources, he said, but notes Pattern has “reserved judgment on the results because we are not aware of research that supports canine searches as a reliable and proven method for identifying ancient cremation sites.”
And whether these sites are actual ancient cremation sites seems to be left unclear on purpose.
Further research on any potential site doesn’t occur because “the only way to take the doubts out of it would be to excavate and that would destroy the area,” Peterson said.
This is something not even the tribes are interested in having, since Native Americans want sites to be left alone, Riolo said.
Forensic dogs are expected to be out in the field today. However, funding to pay the forensic team is running out, and when that happens, “we are done,” Riolo said.