Hurdle looms in protection of state's gopher tortoises


Published: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The end is coming for Florida's controversial policy allowing gopher tortoises to be buried alive, but not fast enough for advocates of the reptiles.

Facts

FYI: About the gopher tortoise

  • Reptile that averages 9-11 inches long and weighs up to 15 pounds.
  • Found throughout Florida, but prefers sandy, well-drained upland areas.
  • Excavates burrows averaging 15 feet in length that are used by many other species.
  • Designated a species of special concern, but state proposes listing as threatened species.
  • State now allows developers to pay a fee to bulldoze over burrows during construction, but a change in threatened designation could end the practice.
FYI: About today's meeting
  • A group including developers, animal-rights advocates and government officials has been meeting to help develop a new management plan for the gopher tortoise.
  • The group meets today in the conference room of the Florida Farm Bureau, 5700 SW 34th St. in Gainesville. The meeting is scheduled to run 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • A stakeholders' group meeting today in Gainesville will help the state develop a new management plan for the gopher tortoise. One prominent local advocate of the species, Ray Ashton, is calling for people to come and demand the state immediately end the burial policy.

    "This is the last round to protect tortoises," he said.

    The current state policy allows developers to pay a fee to bury tortoises alive in the course of their work. As many as 70,000 gopher tortoises have been buried in the past 14 years under the system, according to the state, accelerating the decline of the species.

    But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted last year to propose declaring that the species is threatened. The move launched the development of the new management plan, a draft of which is scheduled to be released Feb. 16.

    Today's meeting includes tortoise advocates, scientists and representatives of developers and private land owners. The end of the burial policy will likely be a major issue of debate, said Perran Ross of the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

    "It's one of those places where different groups of stakeholders have different points of view," said Ross, who will facilitate the meeting.

    He said the dispute centers on whether the burial program should be ended when the new plan is enacted, which is expected to happen in June, or there should be a transition period.

    Ending the policy immediately "is going to be very difficult to do on a practical level," Ross said.

    The gopher tortoise is called a keystone species because of its important role in nature. The reptile digs burrows also used by 350 kinds of insects and animals.

    Because the burrows are typically built in uplands prized for development, the fish and wildlife commission estimates more than half the habitat has been lost in the past century. The commission had allowed developers to bulldoze over burrows during construction, in exchange for a fee used to buy tortoise habitat.

    But the commission's declaration that tortoises are threatened has convinced members of the stakeholders' group the current policy can't continue, said Steve Shea, director of ecological services for the St. Joe Co. He represents the company, which is the largest private landowner in the state, on the stakeholders group.

    But some group members worry development will be halted as the new system is developed, he said. The system being discussed would create new ways for developers to relocate tortoises on private or state land.

    Establishing land for tortoise relocation could take time, Shea said, so some members want a transition period.

    "It's almost like you're stuck between a rock and a hard place," he said.

    He said the St. Joe Co. has been able to develop land without burying gopher tortoises. But the company has the luxury of owning a lot of land for relocation, he said, so he understands the concern of others.

    "You have to realize that you're going in the right direction," he said.

    But Ashton, who runs a 90-acre gopher tortoise preserve near Archer, will hear none of it. He said he wants to make sure tortoises are buried alive only by accident in the future, not as a matter of policy.

    The state can stop tortoise burial immediately if it takes steps to protect and manage tortoise habitat that is being quickly lost to development, he said.

    "We don't want to lose any more land, we don't want to lose any more tortoises," he said.

    Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@ gvillesun.com.

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