Weaving across cactus-studded terrain in McCain Valley, Piper, a border collie trained to find ancient human remains, pauses to sniff the ground. Ears erect, he sits, alerting handler Lynne Engelbert, who records the GPS coordinates. (Click video to view.) Minutes later, Piper’s find is independently confirmed by a second search dog.
“For their certification exam, these dogs have to find each bone and be within a foot,” said John Grebenkemper with the Institute for Canine Forensics. The dogs are trained using ancient bones 5,000 to 8,000 years old.
After several visits to the sites, working in limited hours due to high temperatures, the dogs have located some 50 sites with probable human remains in Ocotillo, on federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.
“There is a reason why they call this the Valley of the Dead,” Manzanita tribal consultant Jeff Riolo told ECM. “How many burial sites does it take to call this a cemetery?”
ECM has contacted the BLM to request comment, but has not yet received a response.
Dozens more ancient human remains have been identified by the dog teams in McCain Valley on BLM land, as well as at Jacumba. Nearly all have been confirmed by a second dog. (Fatigue from intense heat prevented confirmation at the handful of sites where a single dog alerted.)
Those findings occurred in just just a small portion of each of the three project areas searched: Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Express wind, Iberdrola Renewables’ Tule Wind site in McCain Valley (where both turbines and an underground transmission line are proposed) and land adjacent to SDG&E’s ECO-Substation in Jacumba.
Riolo praised two of the energy companies for respecting tribal efforts to project their ancestors, but leveled sharp criticism at a third.
“Iberdrola is actually cooperating with us,” Riolo said, adding that the company has even indicated a willingness to pay for future dog searches after tribes funded the initial round. By contrast , he added “whereas in Jacumba, SDG&E is trying to make it as difficult as possible.”
Iberdrola spokesperson Harley McDonald told ECM that the company is “absolutely sensitive to cultural resources” and had previously done surveys that found hundreds of archaeological sites, resulting in moving turbines, transmission lines and access roads.
The company is “still trying to do our own investigation to find out what these dogs are finding,” McDonald said, adding that she is waiting on a report from the ASM archaeology consultants and from the dog handlers. “We are looking at having a potential second round of investigations later this fall and we are looking at contributing to that cost.”
By contrast, Riolo noted, “SDG&E would not allow us access to their ECO Substation site and since it is private property, we could not trespass…Manzanita has reached out to SDG&E at various levels to dialogue on how to work together to minimize the impact to the cultural property, only to be turned away. SDG&E’s project manager refused to meet with us to discuss mitigation measures, proper tribal monitoring and forensic dog team searches to local cremation sites prior to construction/destruction.”
ECM contacted SDG&E to ask why tribes have been denied access to identify and protect cultural resources at the ECO Substation, potentially including burial sites, but the company has not responded.
Pattern Energy has struck a middle ground with tribes at its Ocotillo Express site.
“Pattern had said that they would avoid these sites,” said Riolo, adding that thus far, the company has done so. However, he noted, “Pattern won’t acknowledge them as cremation sites; they are willing to call them environmentally sensitive sites…We don’t care what you call them, as long as you avoid them.”
In a statement provided to ECM news partner 10 News, Pattern insisted that “To our knowledge, there have been no verified discoveries of cremation sites from these canine searches at this point. We have 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, nor are we aware of the scientific standards being applied in these searches.”
The company added that Pattern will “continue to be reasonable and flexible in how we built this project to minimize the ground disturbances from the construction of the project.”
Tribes have thus far not sought independent confirmation of the dogs’ finds through a coroner’s analysis or carbon dating, because the Native American tradition is to leave ancestors’ remains undisturbed and not dig them up. But if Pattern should decline to protect ancestral remains at its project site, Riolo confirmed, “Then we’ll shovel test it.”
Initially used in police work, forensic dogs were noted to alert on old cemeteries. So the Institute of Canine Forensics, formed in 1997, began training working breeds—herding and hunting dogs—to locate ancient remains.
Just How accurate are the dogs? Extremely accurate, according to their handlers—who provide some impressive examples.
“On an archaeological site in Vacaville in June, the dogs identified burials that were 3,000 years old,” Grebenkemper said.
The dogs have been used by California’s State Parks Service at Body State Park, an unrestored ghost town, where a team including Engelbert and her dog found 296 unmarked graves, as Animal Planet documented in a video. The dogs also helped locate ancient remains at the University of California, San Diego Chancellor’s home.
Tribes want to see a full search conducted of each site. Locating remains, however, can prove problematic for energy companies. Options range from moving turbines or power lines to potentially abandoning projects if avoiding numerous cultural resource sites is not feasible.
There is good reason to believe that many more ancient remains may lie beneath the earth in McCain Valley, a place that the Manzanita, Ewiiaapaayp, Campo, La Posta and Viejas bands of the Kumeyaay Indians have long used as a gathering place and haven of refuge from missionaries, Spaniards, and early Californios before tribes were pushed off these lands and forced onto reservations.
Lost Valley Rock, a prominent landmark in McCain Valley, was used for centuries as a navigational symbol to guide the Kumeyaay people as they journeyed seasonally from the desert to the mountains.
On August 8, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors will consider whether or not to approve an underground transmission line at the Tule Wind site. Planners recommended underground the line, as well as denying approval of five turbines on private land under county control. (The vast majority of the turbines for Tule Wind have been approved by the Bureau of Land Management on federal land; other project turbines are pending approval on state and tribal lands.)
McDonald told ECM that avoiding cultural resources may be impossible if the County follows through on the Planning Commission’s recommendation to underground a portion of its power line on county land at the Tule Wind site. “We want two conditions changed,” she said. “We still are asking to have the turbines, only five, and to have the transmission go overhead.”
Planners previously rejected the overhead route due to impacts on views. But McDonald noted that views in the area are already impacted by the recently completed Sunrise Powerlink.
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