Moves to conserve the species are gaining support, even among developers. Florida's highly criticized policy of allowing developers to kill gopher tortoises in the path of construction could all but end next year. Since 1992, the state's wildlife agency has allowed housing construction and other projects to entomb nearly 80,000 tunnel-dwelling tortoises rather than deal with the extra time and cost of moving them to a conservation tract.
Developers in Orange and Osceola counties lead the state in permitted killings, often paying upward of $1,000 per tortoise. But the state could largely abandon the practice in a series of steps that begins next month. That's when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is expected to declare tortoises as having become threatened with extinction -- a more alarming status than its current listing as a species of special concern.
The probable change is prompted by a commission study that shows the tortoise population has seriously declined. If the commission declares them threatened, agency officials must develop a plan for how to better protect tortoises. A panel of state residents, industry representatives and wildlife experts already has begun some of that work. An early proposal to sharply curtail the tortoise killings is gaining widespread support among the members, including the Florida Home Builders Association.
"Nobody wants to entomb tortoises," said Steve Godley, a biological consultant in Tampa and a home-builders association representative on the review panel that will recommend elements of tortoise protections. "The plan right now is that that can be minimized -- in excess of 90 percent, or at least that's my opinion."
The primary alternative to killing tortoises is moving them off development property and onto conservation lands. But a complete halt in tortoise killings probably won't be possible. That's because in some cases, tortoises might show advanced signs of a common respiratory disease, which is contagious and often fatal. Relocating them could infect other tortoise populations. Other tortoise killings might result when eggs or hatchlings are inadvertently left behind during relocation work. Neither of those issues has been brought up for full discussion by the review panel yet. But participants are surprised that so much progress is being made toward saving tortoises.
"It's really pretty incredible that a year or a year and a half ago, things looked hopeless," said Matt Aresco, a tortoise expert and conservation director for the Pan handle's private Nokuse Plantation conservation tracts. "Incidental take as we know it could be over."
For years, authorities have defended the practice as raising money for tortoise habitats. More than $40 million and nearly 10,000 acres have been gained so far. But opposition to permits for tortoise killings, based on raw emotion and extensive conservation science, has mounted gradually in recent years and is accelerating on several fronts.
For one, an animal-rights organization sued to stop tortoise killings. A lawsuit filed in March by a South Florida organization, Angels in Distress, urges a Leon County Circuit Court judge to stop state permits that inflict "excruciating death by starvation, thirst, or lack of oxygen" for gopher tortoises. "I can't even conceive of burying an animal underground and then leaving it just so somebody can make a buck," said founder Steve Rosen of Davie, who owns a cosmetics company. "I want to shut it down completely. This is a go-for-the-throat lawsuit."
A petition filed in January by a Central Florida group, Save Our Big Scrub, and an Alabama group, Wild South, asks a federal agency -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- to declare tortoises as threatened in Florida and across all of their range in the Southeast. A similar petition was filed by a different conservation group three years ago and is under review. Although the Florida wildlife agency is poised to change the tortoise listing for the state, a federal listing as threatened can impose more wide-ranging protections, especially when federal lands, operations or environmental rules are involved.
Robin Lewis, president of Save Our Big Scrub in Salt Springs, said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is showing signs of regretting its policy of permitting tortoise killings. "I think they made a big mistake, and I think they know it," he said. The legal actions, coupled with the Florida wildlife-commission study and the panel's work, have brought renewed fervor to efforts to change the policy. If it takes a year or more to stop permitted tortoise killings, few involved would be surprised.
The primary alternative of moving tortoises to a private or public parcel has been fraught with difficulties. Ray Ashton of the Ashton Biodiversity Research & Preservation Institute near Gainesville said dropping off tortoises at a conservation tract and driving away is as lethal for the land turtles as crushing them with a bulldozer. Ashton said much research shows that relocated tortoises must be kept in a penned area for months while they adapt to their new turf. He added that the site also must have a rich and diverse supply of food and be maintained with prescribed fire and other practices that enhance natural lands. Also to be decided is what to do with tortoises showing signs of the respiratory infection.
Fish and Wildlife Conservation authorities know that some developers will never agree to any tortoise rules. From time to time, the agency discovers bulldozed tracts and tortoises killed without a state permit. But agency officials also say new rules are needed if tortoises are going to survive Florida's growth.
"Everything is on the table," said Tim Breault, director of habitat and species conservation. Gopher tortoises' burrows are about 40 feet long and 10 feet deep. The tunnels serve as home for 360 other species, including the indigo snake, the gopher frog and the burrowing owl. The Florida mouse depends on tortoise burrows for survival.
Kevin Spear can be reached at 407-420-5062 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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