Shelter for the shelled
By Michael D. Bates | Hernando TodayBROOKSVILLE - Most residents probably don't think of gopher tortoise relocation as that big a deal.
Published: November 3, 2012
Published: November 3, 2012
In fact, many will stop their car when they see one in the road and move it to the side, not realizing that doing so is illegal.
But the county is taking these reptiles seriously, especially since relocating them to safer ground is costing big bucks and delays to construction projects. And the cost of moving them directly affects residents' pocketbooks.
During the widening of Sunshine Grove Road and the county landfill construction project, the county was forced to halt work and hire a certified tortoise handler to relocate the reptiles to suitable habitat. Total cost was more than $200,000.
Because they are listed as a protected species, they cannot be killed and must be handled according to strict state permit guidelines.
The county estimates it is spending about $2,000 for every tortoise relocation.
To save money and cut back on project stoppages, county commissioners directed staff to establish a gopher tortoise recipient site at Lake Townsen Preserve, one of the county's environmentally sensitive lands.
County staffers will become certified in tortoise handling and it won't be necessary to call a trained expert every time a burrow was found on a road project or other construction site.
County staff and volunteers were scheduled to meet at the preserve today to clean up the trash at the site.
But there is much more work ahead for the county.
Jim King, conservation lands specialist, says it is not as easy as people may think to establish a gopher-friendly site.
King said the 300-plus acre Lake Townsen Preserve has to be cleared of debris, scrub and some invasive exotic plants dangerous to tortoises. The county must then appeal to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation for a permit. As King said, there are tons of state regulations to make sure the tortoises' new home is made comfortable and safe.
And even once the permit is obtained, it will be necessary to do controlled burns on an annual basis to keep the preserve in shape.
The entire process could take until 2014, he said.
"Everything is so regulated, you'd think we were putting diamonds out there," said County Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who has been instrumental in getting the preserve project under way.
They also are remarkably adept at direction and are able to find their way back to their original burrow from as far away as 10 miles.
To prevent tortoise wandering, it will be necessary to erect fences at the Lake Townsen site for at least six months, enough time for the reptile to establish a new burrow and forget his or her old home.
"Once we get the habitat in better shape, we will prepare a gopher tortoise management plan and submit it to FWC and hopefully get permission (to use the site)," King said. "I really don't have any doubts about us being able to do that."
King believes he will be able to accommodate up to 900 tortoises on the preserve, located off Lake Lindsay Road, between Daly and Lingle roads.
Once established, the preserve could serve the county's needs for up to 20 years, King says.
It is illegal in Florida to touch gopher tortoises. These creatures are highly stressed and, when mishandled, tend to empty their bladders to such a degree it can lead to the tortoise's death by dehydration.
Their eggs and burrows also are protected under state law.
King says perhaps the reptiles are deserving of all the attention.
"We probably ought to give them more respect," he says. "Living 80-90 years in the ground is quite an accomplishment."
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