Environmental advocates worry gopher tortoises will lose protections

Environmental advocates fear the gopher tortoise could lose some protections after a state agency decided to temporarily give developers more flexibility on where gopher tortoises can be relocated.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said more development in Florida has led to a greater need for places gopher tortoises can be relocated to.

But advocates for the animal believe the deviations to guidelines will lead to habitat loss.

“This whole thing just highlights the concern that the rate of habitat development, Florida has surpassed the rate at which tortoises can be relocated,” said George Heinrich, executive director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. “When you move tortoises, you’re just moving one component of a really diverse, rich ecosystem. There’s lots of other species, over 365 are listed that occur in gopher tortoise burrows.”

One of the guidelines they removed was the 100-mile rule, said Elise Bennett, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. The rule was in place to make sure the tortoises aren’t moved too far from the type of habitat it needs to thrive.

“That’s a really big concern,” Bennett said.

Because more people are coming to Florida, there’s a greater need to find places where gopher tortoises can move.

“The greatest threat facing these tortoises is sprawling development that destroys their habitat,” Bennett said.

FWC said the changes address the current high demand for recipient sites, which is where gopher tortoises are relocated.

“This relocation program has allowed developers to just chew up untold acres of habitat, you need to make way for new development, and in the meantime, that’s meant that it’s really only a matter of time before we ran out of places to put them,” Bennett said.

The FWC said the executive order is for a 90-day period, starting from Nov. 18. The gopher tortoise relocation program is also on the agenda for FWC’s meeting in December.

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
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