tampabay.com

A license to kill tortoises

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published May 7, 2007


Workers buried the 30-pound gopher tortoise on a Lee County construction site, its shell crushed by a backhoe. Two weeks later, despite a spinal injury, the determined tortoise dug its way out.

The remarkable resurrection led a wildlife expert to nickname the 16-inch-long tortoise "Phoenix." It was the largest gopher tortoise ever found in the wild. It died last week.

For 16 years, Florida officials have allowed developers to bury tortoises alive and pave over their burrows, in exchange for paying money into a fund to buy land for tortoises elsewhere. Because of their low metabolic rate, tortoises can take months to suffocate under convenience store parking lots, shopping centers and new subdivisions.

By this year, the state's pay-to-pave program had issued permits to bury more than 94, 000 tortoises. Now the species is in sharp decline, and tortoise experts blame the permitting program.

"It's a massive loss of tortoises, " said George Heinrich of Heinrich Ecological Services in St. Petersburg and a former co-chairman of the Gopher Tortoise Council, a group of biologists concerned about the animal's future.

State wildlife officials have decided to end the program by July 31, prompting a rush by developers to beat the deadline. Up to a dozen applications a week have been sent in for the last permits to kill tortoises, according to Rick McCann, who runs the permit program for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"There's still an amount of insecurity and unsureness that people have, so they want to get permitted now, " McCann said. "We're well ahead of last year's pace."

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Four months ago, for instance, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority got a state permit to kill more than 400 gopher tortoises whose burrows were in the path of a new highway.

Before the bulldozers could crank up, the Humane Society of the United States lodged a protest. Last month the expressway authority agreed to drop its plans to kill the tortoises and agreed to move them to a tortoise preserve area in the 48, 000-acre Nokuse Plantation in the Panhandle.

The Humane Society is eager to see the pay-to-pave program end, said Jennifer Hobgood, program coordinator in the society's Tallahassee regional office.

"The whole policy has provided a perverse incentive to do the wrong thing, " she said.

But Hobgood is concerned about the rush to beat the deadline. The permits the state wildlife commission are issuing now have no expiration date, so developers who get them can use them anytime in the future.

"They would be permitted to kill limitless numbers of tortoises indefinitely, " Hobgood said.

No one knows for sure how many gopher tortoises there are, but there are more in Florida than anywhere else. Dubbed "Hoover chickens" by hungry Floridians during the Depression, gophers make their homes by digging burrows about 14 feet deep under sandy scrub and pine forest land.

Their burrows are nature's apartment buildings, offering shelter to more than 300 other species, including the gopher frog and the eastern indigo snake, which is federally protected species.

But the habitat gophers favor also is popular with developers. By 2003, more than 1.7-million acres of Florida land that was once gopher tortoise habitat had been turned into home sites, roads, shopping centers and the like, according to the wildlife commission. Phosphate mining and citrus groves also have eliminated gopher habitat.

In 1979, state wildlife officials included them on a list of imperiled animals as a "species of special concern, " the lowest level. That meant no one could harm or harass one without the state's permission.

Since 1991, developers who wanted to build in gopher tortoise habitat could choose between two state-authorized solutions: write a check to the state and pave over the burrows, suffocating the occupants; or pay someone to find all the gopher tortoises and move them.

Moving the tortoises was the feel-good choice, McCann said, but it didn't always work. The relocated tortoises often tried to find their way home, only to be run over. Or they carried a respiratory disease that then spread to other tortoises already on their new home turf.

For a while, the state required developers who wanted to relocate tortoises to pay to test them for the disease first, making that option much more expensive than paying to kill the tortoises.

McCann contended that the more controversial pay-to-pave program was, in a way, better for tortoises, because the money collected from developers was used to buy and preserve 25, 000 acres of tortoise habitat.

But that makes up for only one-fifth of the habitat that's been wiped out, Hobgood said.

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Meanwhile, the government has sanctioned suffocating tens of thousands of the animals. The exact number killed is impossible to ascertain, McCann said, because while the state issued permits for killing 94, 000, not all of them have been used.

In a report last summer, a panel of state wildlife experts, including University of South Florida professor Henry Mushinsky, estimated that the population of gopher tortoises in Florida has declined by more than half in the past 60 to 90 years. That persuaded state officials to take the first step toward bumping the tortoise up to "threatened, " one rung below "endangered."

The change is long overdue, said Matt Aresco, conservation director of Nokuse Plantation. While the state was issuing the permits, no one noticed how it was wiping out the population.

"For too long the wildlife commission has looked at it project by project without really evaluating the cumulative effect of the policy, " Aresco said. "The result has been a drastic reduction in the statewide population and distribution of the species."

The state is looking at new permitting rules that would eliminate the suffocation of tortoises and set standards for relocating them designed to eliminate some of the more common problems.

Wildlife commissioners are scheduled to discuss a draft of a plan when they meet next month in Melbourne. They should be ready to vote on changing the species' status to threatened in September when they meet in St. Petersburg.

But Aresco is concerned about what state officials propose doing during the two to three years when the new program is being phased in: Requiring relocation without any standards.

"We want to end" the killing, Aresco said, "but we don't want to just have them dumping tortoises."

Fast Facts:

About the species

Common name: Gopher tortoise

Scientific name: Gopherus polyphemus

Nickname: "Hoover chicken" during the Depression

Average size: 9 to 11 inches long, 15 pounds

Habitat: They dig 14-foot-deep burrows in sandy soil

Food: Grasses and fruit

Reproduction: Females lay a clutch of five to nine eggs once a year

Biggest threat: Habitat destruction