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Gopher tortoises catch a break
Developers no longer will be allowed to pave their burrows with them inside.
By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published June 14, 2007
A gopher tortoise munches on a plant in Brooker Creek Preserve last month. The state has allowed developers to bury so many that the species is threatened with extinction. The wildlife agency agreed to allow people who had already applied for permits to kill them.
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
MELBOURNE - For 16 years, the state's wildlife agency has issued permits allowing developers to bury gopher tortoises alive, suffocating them and all the other animals that use their burrows as a home.
On Wednesday, the agency's board voted unanimously to end the practice, condemned as inhumane and immoral by animal advocates.
"This is long overdue," state wildlife commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said. "What we've done here is wrong, and it's time we made it right."
The commissioners also shot down a proposal to allow homeowners to kill alligators under 4 feet long that turn up in their pools or carports, rather than calling for professional trappers. And they approved moving manatees one step closer to being taken down a notch on the endangered species list.
But the topic that kept the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission talking most of the day was the lowly gopher, known in Depression-era Florida as the "Hoover chicken."
Since 1991, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued 2,900 permits allowing the death of an estimated 94, 000 gopher tortoises. Now the tortoise population has declined to the point where biologists say it should be classified as threatened by extinction.
Tortoise burrows also provide a home for about 300 other species. Those, too, were suffocated to death when the burrows were sealed up and paved over.
Development representatives said nobody really wanted to suffocate thousands of tortoises. But paying to move the tortoises to another location was more expensive than buying a permit to suffocate them.
"There's no one out there that hates gopher turtles and wants them all dead," said Central Florida real estate broker Doug Doudney, chairman of the Coalition for Property Rights. "It was simply a matter of practicality."
Developers asked the state to grandfather in anyone who already had a permit to kill tortoises or was on the verge of getting one.
Over the objections of environmental groups, the state agreed to grandfather some people who have already applied for permits, on a case-by-case basis. But it told its staff to strongly encourage everyone to move the tortoises instead of kill them.
Wildlife agency officials presented a draft plan for increasing protection for the tortoise, including a revamped permitting program that requires relocating tortoises instead of killing them.
Some prodevelopment advocates fretted that that might increase the cost.
"This is kind of like communism -- money is coming out of the hands of the people and it's going over to the state," said Merritt Island real estate broker Dolores Kane.
The commission made short work of a proposal by its staff to allow homeowners to go ahead and kill alligators smaller than 4 feet long that turn up in suburban back yards and driveways. The change was opposed by the state's professional gator trappers, who warned about the consequences.
"Even a little alligator's got 80 teeth," said professional trapper Bill Robb. "I don't think people should be dabbling in that."
Commissioners also voted unanimously to approve a controversial draft plan for managing manatees, leaving just one more step before the popular marine mammal is taken off the list of endangered species.
The draft plan calls for the state to come up with a new way to count the number of manatees within the next three years and review whether all the new boating speed zones that have been imposed are working. It does not call for getting rid of any of those zones, however.
Boating groups praised the commission staff for coming up with a plan they supported, but environmental activists complained that it was just "a plan of plans," lacking in concrete goals for how to stop the rising number of manatee deaths due to boat collisions. Boat-related deaths account for about 30 percent of all manatee deaths.
The plan "does a good job of telling you what's wrong, but it does a terrible job of telling you how we're going to fix it, " said Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club.
While conceding the plan was not perfect, Commissioner Richard Corbett of Tampa said that the board couldn't wait to make a decision. "We'll revisit these things if we're in error," he said.
The final vote on changing them to merely "threatened" is scheduled to take place in September, in a meeting in St. Petersburg. That vote would also ratify the final version of the management plan.
Manatees are still listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but federal wildlife officials are considering dropping them to "threatened."