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June 19, 2006

News: Developer gets OK to destroy hundreds of gopher tortoises 

Virginia Smith

Gopher tortoises will soon get more protection under state law -- but that won't mean much to the ones at Plantation Oaks.

 

 
Last week the St. Johns River Water Management District awarded a permit to a 1,033-acre proposed housing development and golf course north of Ormond Beach. The permit included several concessions negotiated by local environmentalists. What the environmentalists didn't realize was that in February the developer, Parker Mynchenberg of Holly Hill, had secured the state's blessing to destroy up to 923 tortoises on the land.

    On June 7, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission moved to upgrade the gopher tortoise from a "species of special concern" to "threatened." That will mean more protection down the line, including a possible ban on entombment, the practice of burying tortoises alive in their burrows.

But the new rules won't take effect for at least a year, and the old system is very much in place.

    To obtain the gopher tortoise permit, Mynchenberg's firm had to pay $722,897 to purchase 94 acres of tortoise habitat elsewhere.

"It seems outrageous that they'd elevate the species to threatened and then eliminate 1,000 of them," said Rick Smith of Save the Loop, an environmental group originally formed to oppose Plantation Oaks, but more recently has settled for forested buffers and other compromises.

    Ray Ashton, a gopher tortoise scientist who works closely with the state, called the Plantation Oaks permit "crazy" and "a great disaster."Mynchenberg called the state's estimate of 923 tortoises, an estimate based on the size and type of habitat, "an exaggeration." The actual count on the 1033-acre parcel "is under 400," he said.

Mynchenberg also said as many tortoises as possible would be relocated, alive, within the property and most of the tortoises reside along a utility corridor that will not be affected by land-clearing. State rules preclude the tortoises from being moved off the property, he said, because several tested positive for respiratory disease.

    Ashton said the disease has been proven not to affect tortoise relocations and that the state plans to loosen the testing rules in December. Construction at Plantation Oaks could begin as early as August, if water-use permits come through.State wildlife officials expect that within a year, when the gopher tortoise's status is formally changed and a new management plan is approved, entombment will be curtailed and relocation practices changed to ensure more tortoises survive.  

    For now, relocation can be merely a matter of plopping tortoises on land they can't survive on, an obsolete disease rule restricts moving many to where they could survive, and entombment is perfectly legal. Entombment, which the state legalized in 1991, has become unpopular with the public, which cringes at the thought of tortoises trapped in their burrows as a result of land clearing or paving.

But it's been increasingly embraced by developers; gopher tortoise "incidental take" permits, as they are known in state lingo, have tripled in the past four years, said Richard McCann, a commission biologist in Tallahassee. Entombment, McCann said, is not generally fatal to every tortoise on a property, "but that's not to discount the concern that some animals are harmed."

    Certainly no one is arguing that they're helped. State scientists told the wildlife commission at its June 7 meeting that the gopher tortoise faced a decline of at least 50 percent over three generations, a decline big enough to label it "threatened." More recent science has uncovered graver declines of as much as 40 percent annually

    The fees the state collects from take permits have been used to purchase 22,000 acres of gopher habitat so far, "22,000 acres we wouldn't have otherwise had," McCann said.

But that's a mere fraction of what's been lost, gopher advocates say, and little of the state's tortoise land is managed for the tortoises. Without periodic burning or wildfires, land can quickly become unsuitable for gophers.

    Banning or greatly restricting entombment may help slow the tortoise's decline. But gopher advocates fear the yearlong interim between the commission's June 7 action and the actual legal changes will spur a run on incidental take permits, if it hasn't already "We're worried about that," said Laurie MacDonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the state's working group on tortoises.

Ashton, also a member of the group, said he's received "three calls in three days" from developers' representatives "who had wanted to do relocation but are now interested in take permits."

    Steve Lau, a commission biologist in Vero Beach, said his office has been receiving "lots and lots" of take permit applications lately.Lau was the scientist who reviewed the Plantation Oaks permit and calculated that the development could affect 923 animals. "It's hard to count every inch of 1,000 acres," he said, but "it's a big permit for any area."

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