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Jul 7, 2007

FWC Bans Entombment of Gopher Tortoises Gopher Tortoise, NRCS

Wildlife commission voted Wednesday to end policy that allowed developers to bulldoze the reptile’s burrows as long as they obtained a permit

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

— The days of paying to pave over gopher tortoises in Florida are over — almost.

The state wildlife commission voted Wednesday to end a 16-year-old policy that allowed developers to bulldoze the reptile’s burrows as long as they obtained a permit. The move is effective July 30, but those who submit applications for “incidental take” permits by that date may still get staff approval afterward.

Entombment, as the practice is known, has led to the burial of more than 94,000 tortoises since 1991, according to state estimates. That number may be as high as 900,000, a university biologist suggested Wednesday, citing evidence that developers’ representatives often undercount the tortoises on their property. And it could surge far higher. Another 100,000 or so tortoises reside on lands for which an incidental take permit has been issued but not executed, the Humane Society estimates.

“These permits currently bear no expiration date,” said Jennifer Hobgood, the Humane Society’s Tallahassee-based Southeast regional coordinator.

She urged the state to stop honoring existing permits. “When the house is already flooded, turning off the faucet is only one step to recovery.”

In general, though, environmentalists cheered the decision.

“It really is horrific and barbaric by any normal person’s standards,” Maureen Rupe, president of the Partnership for a Sustainable Future, said of entombment.

The end of entombment won’t have any impact in Lee County, where the practice has long been banned. Collier County, though, has kept its policies in line with the state.

Developers and property rights advocates pushed the commission to delay the action and to consider a more expansive definition of those who could continue get burial permits past the deadline.

Attorney Doug Rillstone said he represented the Association of Florida Community Developers, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Home Builders Association. The governor-appointed commission rejected his call to allow those who have already submitted wetlands-destruction or development of regional impact applications to continue to bury tortoises.

The members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said they would consider such a provision at a later date, though.

“There are a number of people who have gone a long way into this process ... (for whom) it would be extremely destructive to start this process over,” said Dan Stengle, a former general counsel for the commission who now works for the prominent law firm of Hopping Green & Sams.

The commission also debated whether enough land would be available to host the initial crush of relocated tortoises. They briefly considered increasing the concentration of tortoises that a landowner could place on a relocation site from three per acre to four, but opted in the end for three. A property rights advocacy group urged the commission to push back the July 30 deadline to give more notice to landowners.

“I’m not arguing from a human standpoint. I’m arguing from a due-process standpoint,” said Carol Saviak, executive director of the Coalition for Property Rights.

Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto responded directly to Saviak, saying: “This is long overdue, this rule. What’s been going on is wrong and we’re going to make it right.”

Changing tack, Saviak questioned how well wildlife officials are protecting the ailing species.

Of the $56 million that the state has collected from “incidental take” permits, a mere $13 million has been spent on buying land to house gopher tortoises displaced by development, she said, citing information she obtained through a public records request at the agency. Another $8 million was spent on administrative costs.

So far, the state has bought 26,000 acres through the program. At least $41 million sits in a trust fund for that purpose.

State wildlife officials acknowledged that the incidental take permit was a fatal mistake. For years, state biologists feared that relocating gopher tortoises would spread a flu-like disease to healthy populations, but new research suggests that the disease isn’t as serious as originally thought.

The Conservation Commission is poised to enact a gopher tortoise protection plan in September that upgrades the reptile’s status from a species of special concern to threatened. The 15-year plan directs state officials to take aggressive action to further protect the species, such as:

• Expanding the state-owned cache of gopher tortoise habitat by 615,000 acres through land purchases and conservation easements on private properties.

• Relocating about 180,000 tortoises away from areas slated for development.

• Improving habitat conditions on protected lands so they can support more relocated tortoises.

As July 30 approaches, state officials expect to receive a wave of incidental permit applications. They will toss the ones that appear to involve property speculating, said Greg Holder, a Lakeland-based regional director for the commission.

Visibility: Everyone
Posted: Saturday July 7, 2007, 10:29 am
Tags: wildlife florida endangered tortoises overdevelopement [add/edit tags]

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