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Volunteers race to save tortoises

Their mission is to move gopher tortoises from land being developed. But few builders respond to a group's offer to save the creatures.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Jim Bierly of Sugarmills Woods checks on a gopher tortoise trap in a soon-to-be-developed lot near the entrance of the subdivision.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002


SUGARMILL WOODS -- The barefoot boy with curly brown hair went from lot to lot, racing against the bulldozers and steamrollers that transformed his St. Petersburg neighborhood.

That was 60 years ago, but Jim Bierly is saving gopher tortoises once again, this time in Sugarmill Woods. "I came up here to retire," he says with a laugh.

Until recently, Bierly would have had a hard time rescuing the slow-moving reptiles, which are classified as a protected species. State law mandated that a permit was needed to move each tortoise, making it a cumbersome endeavor.

But under a unique program, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has granted Bierly and other volunteers the right to transplant gopher tortoises from land that is being developed in Sugarmill Woods to areas in the burgeoning subdivision that are safe.

Members of the Community Tortoise Stewards, the first group of its kind in the state, are trained by expert Ray Ashton of Newberry. Since October, they have relocated 12 tortoises.

"When you are able to save one, it makes you feel good," said Sharon Karsen, a Sugarmill Woods resident who shares most of the work with Bierly. "But you know you are not going to get all of them in time."

Karsen is frustrated by the lack of response from developers and landowners. She has mailed out letters explaining that as the community grows, the tortoise habitat continues to shrink.

The letters ask for permission to survey a lot under development for burrows and to trap any tortoises on the property. "A minimum of 30 days is requested in order to complete the trapping due to weather fluctuations and tortoise activity," the letter states. "It is as simple as that."

Developers, obligated by state law to relocate tortoises, could save hundreds of dollars by letting the volunteers do the work, Karsen said.

The group asks that a donation be made to Ashton's nonprofit, the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative. Despite that, only a few people have called. So Karsen has found herself scouring property records to learn which lots are slated for new homes. "I've been going like crazy," she said.

One man building a house on Douglas Street allowed her on his property but became angry when she informed them how many tortoises lived there.

"Most are more concerned with getting their construction started than having a further delay because of the tortoises," Karsen said. "It's very sad."

Still, the small group pushes on.

Trapping a tortoise is relatively simple. A 5-gallon bucket is buried near a mouth of a burrow and paper and sand are placed over the top. When the tortoise returns home, it drops into the pail.

Bierly checks on the buckets several times a day. The harmless herbivores get excited when they are trapped and could die in intense sun. With the onset of cold weather, Bierly placed lids over the buckets.

Some of the tortoises that are caught are taken to the "greenbelt," a natural area that runs through the subdivision.

Bierly has located several abandoned burrows near the Florida Power transmission lines so he can plop down the tortoises there.

"At least it gives them shelter for the night. If they don't like it, they can dig a 20-foot hole in a few hours."

Scientists say tortoises play a vital role in the ecosystem. More than 300 animal species, including endangered indigo snakes and gopher frogs, rely on tortoise burrows for shelter, especially during periods of cold, heat or drought. A burrow can be up to 45 feet long and 22 feet deep.

"I'm happy with the success we've had so far," Karsen said. "But I'd just like to get more people involved."

-- Staff writer Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or leary@sptimes.com.

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