A Broward animal rights activist has filed suit against a state agency to save a species of tortoise from being buried by developers.
Jack rabbit savior Steve Rosen is at it again -- this time trying to rescue little gopher tortoises from being buried alive throughout Florida. He asked a judge last week to nullify hundreds of state permits awarded to developers that allow them to bury live gopher tortoises, as new homes and malls are built.
''This is going to be blood and guts,'' said Rosen. ``I'm going after them.''
Rosen became a local hero to animal rights activists three years ago when he successfully stopped federal snipers from picking off a rapidly reproducing jack rabbit colony at Miami International Airport. On his dime, he hired local trapper Todd Hardwick, who rounded up 308 rabbits that were shipped to a Texas ranch. Afterward, the U.S. Agriculture Department visited the airport in the dark of night, and eliminated the rest. Officials feared vultures swarming the runways to feed on the rabbits could get caught in airplane engines.
In his fight to save tortoises, Rosen went to Leon County Circuit Court, filing suit against the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. He claims, among other things, that the agency gives developers the right to fill burrows where the foot-long reptiles live -- without having to move them. Other choices include building less, relocating the animals, or avoiding development altogether.
The wildlife commission says it has issued permits to fill 74,000 burrows since 1991. A recent agency report says there are almost 800,000 tortoises in Florida, but their numbers have declined dramatically -- by about 70 percent -- since 1910. It also recommends changing them to threatened species status.
Moving them to a new habitat would seem the most reasonable solution. But there are two major problems with relocating the tortoises, said FFWCC spokesman Willie Puz. The reptiles often carry an upper respiratory disease that easily spreads throughout any new population, and the 10- to 15- pound creatures have homing mechanisms that allow them to return home fairly easily.
''We're looking at ways to improve our management of the species,'' said Puz.
Ron Gaby, a biologist and environmental consultant said the turtles tend to like high, dry ground -- just like developers. He also said he fears the animals may live as long as several weeks before suffocating underground, though no studies have been done to prove that. ''We should preserve habitat and manage it, and let the tortoise do its own thing,'' Gaby said.
The public's concern over the reptiles grew considerably after it was reported earlier this year that a Wal-Mart in Palm Beach County received a permit to entomb five gopher tortoises.
CRITICAL OF WAL-MART
In compensation, Wal-Mart paid $11,409 to protect an acre and a half of land not used by tortoises for burrowing.
The story infuriated Rosen: ``Don't tell me Wal-Mart can't afford to move five turtles.''
There's no telling just how many gopher tortoises live in the wild in South Florida. But the commission's Lt. Pat Reynolds said the largest concentration is in Northeast Dade. He said he's relocated several in South Dade's Monkey Jungle, near Miami Metro Zoo -- even to cemeteries. ''We're losing land like crazy,'' said Reynolds. ``It always hurts wildlife when you move them.''
Rosen claims there are about 275 permits to fill burrows or move the tortoises that remain open in the state. Puz couldn't confirm that number Tuesday, but said no new permits have been issued in the past year in Miami-Dade County. He said the Wal-Mart incident produced an e-mail flurry and a petition drive that forced his agency to do a biological review, now in draft status, of the gopher tortoise population. It also formed the Gopher Team Action Committee, which will examine and try to improve gopher tortoise management and permitting.
The review recommended changing the gopher tortoise's status to threatened. Puz said if the findings are proved accurate and the review is cleared by FFWCC commissioners, a new species management plan could be in place in 12 to 18 months.
Rosen said he'll be watching carefully. ''Why are they killing these innocent little turtles? It's for a buck,'' he said. ``Here, they're not crying public safety like they were at the airport.''