Don’t bury the gopher tortoise.That’s been the overwhelming response to a new Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission proposed management plan for the burrowing reptiles, one agency official said.
Some say the gopher tortoise is being buried alive by developers who pay for optional Fish and Wildlife “incidental take” permits to build atop the reptile’s habitat rather than relocate the species.
The commission wants to upgrade the reptile’s status from a species of special concern to threatened. As part of that, officials have to compile a management plan, which is required to make the status change. The plan is open for public comment through today.
“Our goal is not to come in and plow over gopher tortoises,” said Lewis Moscovitch, president of Symphony Builders, which is at work on a project in Fort Pierce.
Roads and traffic, intensive agriculture and invasive exotic plants also are among the threats, the agency’s plan reports.
During the past 80 to 100 years, gopher tortoises have declined at a rate of more than 50 percent because of habitat loss, Fish and Wildlife Research Biologist Joan Berish said.
The agency’s management plan includes a proposal to do away with incidental take permits where builders pay fees to build atop tortoise habitat. That money goes toward creating a new home for gopher tortoises, Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Joy Hill said.
Liz Dunleavy, vice president of the St. Lucie Audubon Society, said she agrees with the proposal.
On Sunday, she and Audubon and Vero Beach Humane Society volunteers relocated “number 19,” one of a colony of tortoises that lived on vacant Fort Pierce land where Symphony Builders condominiums are about to rise.
“They’re just so cute,” Dunleavy said. “They’re helpless, and they don’t hurt anybody.”
The reptiles suffer from a respiratory disease that, until recently, required testing before relocating them with other colonies, Hill said. The effects of the disease on the species population have not been measured, she said.
Berish estimates there are 750,000 to 1 million tortoises throughout the state and a little more than 3.2 million acres of potential habitat to accommodate them.
“There’s a big responsibility on county governments, local governments and developers,” Hill said. “Biologists right now are working on a cost for this.”
Gopher tortoises along the Treasure Coast can be found at places such as the Hobe Sound and Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuges and Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
Officials at the Hobe Sound Refuge and Jonathan Dickinson have been working on removing invasive exotic plants and performing prescribed burns to maintain the reptile’s open canopied sand scrub habitat, Hobe Sound Refuge Manager Margo Stahl said.
Archie Carr’s 62-acre Coconut Point Sanctuary could provide a relocation site, Refuge Ranger Joanna Taylor said.
“I’m glad to see the state is moving toward changing or modifying their practices,” Taylor said. “The public has been crying for this for years.”TO COMMENT
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission management plan for gopher tortoises can be viewed at www.myfwc.com and is open for public comment until 5 p.m. April 4.
How to comment: E-mail comments to gt_plan@myFWC.com
GOPHER TORTOISES AT A GLANCE
• Average 9 to 11 inches in length
• Feature stumpy, elephantine hind feet and flattened, shovel-like forelimbs adapted for digging
• Shell is oblong and generally tan, brown or gray
• Inhabit southeastern South Carolina to extreme southeastern Louisiana and in parts of all 67 counties in Florida