tampabay.com

Tortoise move halted at store site

Wal-Mart had permits, but all conditions had not been met.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published March 25, 2007


TARPON SPRINGS - State wildlife enforcement agents intercepted eight gopher tortoises as a crew was illegally moving them from a Wal-Mart building site Friday afternoon.

By day's end, all of the tortoises were safely released to temporary burrows on the site. But for much of Friday, the endangered animals made a dramatic appearance in the ongoing saga between the world's largest retailer and local activists battling over this patch of land south of the Anclote River.

Wal-Mart and its consultant, Lotspeich and Associates of Winter Park, had obtained a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to relocate up to 10 tortoises. But before disturbing the animals, the retailer was first required to secure all of its other permits from other government agencies.

Several of Wal-Mart's permits are still pending, officials said Friday.

Premature removal of gopher tortoises is not a transgression wildlife officers commonly encounter, said FWC spokesman Gary Morse.

"This is not normal, none of this is normal," he said. "This is first time I've seen this since I've been here ... for 29 years."

Morse said its unclear whether Wal-Mart or its consultant will face a penalty as a result of the premature removal.

The tortoises had been unearthed from their subterranean burrows and loaded into a truck destined for a mitigation bank in Volusia County when an FWC officer arrived at the site, Morse said.

The officer was dispatched in response to a rash of phone calls from local activists reporting activity involving backhoes and trucks at the vacant site.

The unusual allegations prompted some cross-signals from the wildlife agency on Friday afternoon. At first, regional enforcement officials believed that the relocation could proceed as long as Wal-Mart had all of the required wildlife permits, Morse said. But this interpretation was overruled by higher-ups.

"We were trying to get a hold of our experts in Tallahassee to make sure our local interpretation was correct, and it was not," he said.

The enforcement officer reached the site just as the truck carting the tortoises was leaving.

Friday's incident drew a small crowd to the fenced site along U.S. 19: Wal-Mart's wildlife consultants and lawyers, City Commissioner Peter Dalacos, local police, a city code enforcement officer and local activists who have opposed the store.

The FWC officer ordered Wal-Mart's wildlife consultants to return the animals using a "soft-release" technique, Morse said. The tortoises are quick to adapt when they are placed in abandoned burrows or man-made holes, he said.

Friday's confrontation marked the end of several months of relative dtente between the retailer and local opponents, who have been dueling since the city commission first approved the project in Jan. 2005.

"It was a traumatic day both for tortoises and the people involved," Morse said.

Fast Facts:

 

Gopher tortoise

(Gopherus polyphemus)

Size: Averages 9-11 inches, but can attain lengths of 15 inches. Can weight up to 15 pounds.

Lifespan: Can live 50 years or more.

Habitat: Found throughout Florida, but prefers sandy, well-drained upland areas. They excavate burrows averaging 15 feet in length, but burrows can be up to 48 feet long and 6 feet deep. Their burrows may be used by many other species, including the Florida mouse and indigo snake.

Diet: Grasses, bean-family plants, fruits and grasslike plants of the sunflower family.

Status: In Florida, it is illegal to take, possess, transport or sell gopher tortoises or their eggs except as authorized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Permits from the FWC are required to relocate tortoises.

Find out more: To learn more about gopher tortoises, visit the FWC at www.myfwc.com or the Gopher Tortoise Council at www.gophertortoisecouncil.org.

Source: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, www.myfwc.com.