Article and Photography by Alice Mary Herden
According to the U.S. census in 2010, the population in Hernando County was estimated at 172,000 and seven years later that number rose to 186,000.
The rise of the population means more land development which in turn means more wildlife habitat lost especially for one particular species that holds an extremely valuable place in our ecosystem: The Florida Gopher Tortoise.
What is so important about the Gopher Tortoise? This 30-pound reptile is just one of the most important species in the state of Florida because its home provides a refuge for hundreds of other wildlife species such as the threatened eastern indigo snake.
Gopher tortoises are a threatened species as well and are protected under the state law, Chapter 68A-27 of the Florida Administrative Code (F.A.C.) and may in the future be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
When Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, it recognized that our rich natural heritage is of “esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people.” It further expressed concern that many of our nation’s native plants and wildlife were in danger of becoming extinct.
The gopher tortoise thrives in longleaf pine, oak sand hill habitats as well as pastures, prairies, scrub and coastal grasslands. The gopher tortoise is given its name because of the 10 to 40 foot underground tunnel they dig called a burrow. These burrows can retain a consistent temperature and humidity levels year-round which provides protection during the Florida’s summer heat, droughts and fire.
These burrows provide refuge for over 300 animal species that include the eastern indigo snake (eastern indigo snake was listed as a threatened species in 1978), pine snake, gopher frog, burrowing owl and many other species.
On July 19, 2018 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee (FWC) held a Local Government Workshop in Land O’ Lakes.
The workshop was to provide resource and incentive information for local governments and private landowners as well as to encourage participation of conservation actions that have been set forth by the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan which increases or improves existing habitat for the species.
“I always had a special concern with gopher tortoises,” said Alex Kalfin Local Government Coordinator for the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Program. “I gained an appreciation for them not only through my personal experiences but also through learning about them at a young age- that they were an important keystone species and so many other species rely on them for their survival.”
A keystone species helps define an entire ecosystem and without them, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.
With the rise in urban development not only in Hernando County but the entire state of Florida, wildlife may seem to get pushed aside and that is why there are organizations, such as FWC, to ensure the protection of both wildlife and the Florida ecosystems.
“Any form of development that impacts a gopher tortoise burrow within 25 feet or anything that causes soil disturbance, which includes mining, requires that the person or entity conducting activity needs to apply for a gopher tortoise relocation permit. Through that permit, since 2007, all gopher tortoises that are in the path of development or that will be impacted are required by state law to be relocated,” Kalfin said.
For all gopher tortoise relocation permits, the obligation is on the Applicant/developer/property owner to apply for the proper permits in accordance with Florida Statute and Florida Administrative Code.
Once the permit is issued, and certain conditions of the permit are met, the Authorized Gopher Tortoise Agent hired may begin relocation procedures; this includes either trapping of the tortoises, or excavation of their burrows, before relocating to a recipient site. Once all tortoises have been relocated from the property to a recipient site, or recipient area (when on-site relocation authorized), development activities may commence (land clearing, grading, bulldozing, building, etc.).
For the time period of November 2017 through June 2018 there were 13 active conservation permits and several active permits of 10 or fewer burrows issued in Hernando County.
In terms of the number of tortoises relocated in association with these projects, Kalfin provided the following numbers.
In total, 840 tortoises will be or have been relocated from these projects, though the Suncoast Parkway Expansion project (a significant contributor to this number) is relocating tortoises from both Hernando and Citrus counties. 145 of these tortoises were relocated to the Withlacoochee State Forest in Hernando County. The remaining tortoises are being relocated to long-term protected recipient sites throughout the state.
The 1994 “Closing the Gaps” report by James Cox, Randy Kautz, Maureen MacLaughlin and Terry Gilbert from the Office of Environmental Services, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission recognized the need for private lands to be included in comprehensive statewide conservation.
“For private landowners there are several benefits to becoming a long-term recipient site; one is that you can charge to receive tortoises,” Kalfin said.
Of Florida’s nearly 35 million acres, currently 19 million acres are of private ownership. With developed lands in Florida expecting to double in acreage by the year 2060, the conservation role of private landowners will become more valuable and the FWC’s private lands partnerships even more vital.
There are currently 60 active recipient sites in the state of Florida according to the FWC Gopher Tortoise Permit Map to date, as for Hernando County there is none actively listed.
As gopher tortoises are protected under Florida State Law, Chapter 68A-27 of the Florida Administrative Code if harmed in any way, the offender may be rewarded with a hefty citation.
“You have to have a permit to relocate them, so it generally starts off with officers getting calls, it will go through dispatch, and we’ll be informed of a possible violation. Most of the calls we get there is just a gopher tortoise in their yard and they want to know if they can remove it,” Officer Ashley Tyer, Public Information Officer for FWC Division of Law Enforcement explained.
“When law enforcement is involved it is usually when they have already done something with the tortoise. They’ve removed the tortoises [and/or] they’ve caved in the burrow,” Officer Tyer said. “All the burrows are offered the same protection the actual gopher tortoise has.”
In July alone, FWC dispatch in Hernando County received over 10 calls pertaining to gopher tortoises, those calls may have included burrow endangerment.
“It’s easy to get a permit; they [companies/landowners] just have to go through proper procedures through FWC,” Officer Tyer said. “We get involved when they [companies/landowners] prematurely clear the land or build too close to a burrow.”
“They have good reason to be protected they are an important species biologically for our environment. People can live in harmony with the species they [the public] just need the education on how to,” Officer Tyer said. “It’s the initiative of the homeowners, residents and businesses of Florida to take it upon themselves to look at the material we have available.”
FWC provides a tremendous amount of educational materials for the public as well as for any building contractors and landowners. Visit MyFWC.com for information, pamphlets and other educational material.
“The most important thing for the public to know is that the gopher tortoise is a keystone species that hundreds of animals rely on. It’s important to appreciate them and do what you can to conserve them. And if you are doing any type of development which includes small scaled development, to apply for the proper permits,” Kalfin said. “If you see any illegal activity going on as far as development around gopher tortoise burrows, call Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922,” Kalfin added.