Wal-Mart will go slow and ensure tortoises' safety

Published April 25, 2007

Editor's note: The following guest column was received from Wal-Mart Inc. in response to the St. Petersburg Times' recent reports on the removal of gopher tortoises from a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter site on U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs.

It has often been said that no good deed goes unpunished, and so it goes.

Wal-Mart recently tried to do the right thing in our preparation to open a store in Tarpon Springs. A primary goal in opening a new store is to provide value to the communities we join. We do so with a "store of the community" ethic that seeks to simultaneously protect and enrich those cities and towns.

Most of the time, this goal is achieved by demonstrating economic value and bringing necessary volunteer power and financial support to local causes. We've learned throughout our company's history that neighbor support comes after addressing specific local concerns, including issues involving the economy and environment.

With this spirit in mind, Wal-Mart began securing land and obtaining permits for a new store just south of the Anclote River. When we reviewed the site, however, we came across some unexpected residents: a handful of gopher tortoises. We wanted to extend the care we demonstrate to all the communities we join - even to these slow-paced friends.

A number of options were available to us as stewards of the land. One option was to obtain a permit to "take" the tortoises and destroy them. We chose the other more difficult course: to relocate them.

In doing so, Wal-Mart assumed a greater responsibility. As we do in all cases, we proceeded with the full intent to exceed all legal standards and responsibilities. We saw this as an opportunity to show this community that we practice what we preach.

We moved forward carefully, with the assistance of environmental consultants and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and obtained the necessary state permit to relocate the tortoises to another approved site. We used a non-harmful trap system to gather the tortoises onsite. We tested them for Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, or URTD, which could potentially harm other inhabitants of their new environment. In partnership with the University of Florida, which conducted the tests, we found none of the tortoises tested positive for the disease.

Other conditions were also critical for the relocation to be considered an all-around success. These included ideal weather conditions (neither the day of the release nor two consecutive days previous to release could be below 50 degrees), finding a comparable relocation spot and finding a local contractor with experience in gopher tortoise excavations.

Despite our best efforts to obtain all necessary permits and comply with all regulations regarding the development of this property and the preservation of these special animals, the moment it was first brought to our attention that there was a chance our removal of the tortoises was premature, we immediately stopped the relocation, re-created the original tortoise habitats and released them back into their original surroundings, where they will remain until this situation is resolved.

Wal-Mart will continue to work with environmental experts and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission every step of the way to ensure no harm is done to these hard-shelled natives. We will continue to seek relationships in the environmental community and will maintain relationships with those who have already offered ongoing counsel and support in ensuring we follow the proper course.

We are committed to doing what is right for our community and the environment. Wal-Mart will continue to find ways of bringing value to the communities we join: through jobs to new employees, low-cost savings to consumers and, yes, even to safe habitats for the tortoises in Tarpon Springs.

Ronny Hayes of Doral is regional vice president of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.