FLORIDA GOPHER TORTOISES
A single modern tortoise genus containing four species inhabits the North American continent. Closely related to the extinct Eocene genus Stylemys, they are highly adapted for burrowing, which they do proficiently, hence the common moniker, gopher tortoise. All four species are imperiled to some degree, sometimes because of their fossorial habits. The westernmost species, the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agasizii - above) ranges from southwestern Utah southwest into SW California, northern Baja California and Sonora and NW Sinaloa. Cattle interests have historically been an enemy of the Desert Tortoise, which prefers digging its burrows in the grasslands used for grazing. Today the Utah population is severely threatened by the ever-expanding metropolis of St. George. The USFWS lists the species as threatened, and the IUCN calls it vulnerable. The Texas Tortoise (G. berlandieri), which occurs from Texas south to S. Taumalipas, is probably in the best shape of any of the four. The USFWS does not list it, and the IUCN lists its status as indeterminate. In 1959, my homeboy John Legler described the largest member of the genus, the 37 cm. Bolson Tortoise (G. flavomarginatus), whose restricted range in the Bolson de Mapimi, where the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango meet, justify its endangered status on both lists. In the eastern U.S., a population of the Gopher Tortoise (G. polyphemus) is distributed from E. South Carolina, south through Florida, while a disjunct population ranges from SE Louisiana east to Alabama. The IUCN lists the species as vulnerable, while the USFWS deems the western population threatened. Censusing creatures that spend most of their time underground is difficult, and there are no good data on Gopher Tortoises, but it's generally agreed that there are more of the reptiles in Florida than anywhere else. The sandy, well-drained soils preferred by the tortoises are also coveted by land developers, and the inherent conflict potential has been obvious for years. In 1979, state wildlife officials gave Gopher Tortoises the status of “species of special concern,” affording them protection from harm by persons who hadn't filled out the required forms. For the past 16 years, Florida officials have been handling tortoise/developer conflicts the same way they're handled in Mississippi: the developer is issued an expensive “incidental take permit,” which allows them to pave or build over tortoise burrows. The fees collected go into a fund for protecting tortoise habitat elsewhere. To this date, it's estimated that under the Florida program, more than 94,000 tortoises have been buried alive, while 25,000 acres of tortoise habitat has been purchased and protected by the state, about 15% the size of the 1.7 million acres of tortoise habitat that has turned to homes, highways, strip malls, etc.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife has been under pressure from various groups and individuals to change this policy. Conservationists don't like the fact that it's not preventing habitat decimation, and animal-rights folks find the slow killing of the reptiles by suffocation or crushing to be cruel. Last summer, the state issued a report estimating that the population of Florida tortoises is roughly half of what it was 90 years ago, and an effort is being made to upgrade the species' state status to “threatened.” On Wednesday, officials announced that the “pay to pave” program will be terminated as of July 31, 2007. Rather than deny developers their right to build whatever projects they please, the new plan will require them to relocate tortoises to “safe areas.” Over the next 15 years, the state plans to expand the tortoise reservation area by 615,000 acres, and relocate 180,000 tortoises, and “improve” habitat on the reservation. The Burrowing Owls, Indigo Snakes, camel crickets, and the many other species that find sanctuary in Gopher Tortoise burrows will have to find their own ride. Already, developers are complaining of hardship. Past attempts at relocating Gopherus tortoises have seen large percentages of the reptiles attempting to find their way back, and the spreading of respiratory infections is a very real danger, too. We're likely watching the birth of the Florida State Turtle Zoo.