Challenges growing for gopher tortoise relocation

Florida’s gopher tortoise conservation efforts and relocation program has been a cornerstone for conservation success over the past 13 years, but a stepped-up effort is needed to find additional sites that can receive the protected species and to reduce delays in identifying available capacity at existing sites.

That’s according to Melissa Tucker and Jennifer Goff, from FWC’s division of habitat and species conservation, who were slated to give an update of the program at the FWC’s regular meeting Wednesday, Dec. 15 in Destin.

Their report said current economic conditions and industry influences, such as increased development, have resulted in delayed availability or limited capacity for relocation of impacted gopher tortoises.

Because gopher tortoises are protected in Florida, handling and relocation of gopher tortoises is illegal unless conducted under a valid permit issued by FWC. In accordance with the Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines, an FWC relocation permit must be obtained before disturbing burrows and conducting construction activities. A disturbance includes any type of work within 25 feet of a gopher tortoise burrow, with the exception of standard lawn maintenance activities.

When landowners or managers develop land or conduct activities that would collapse burrows, they commonly seek one of two permit types.

Those for 10 or fewer burrows are issued for projects, usually single residential construction, which require relocation of five or fewer tortoises. If the creatures are relocated on-site, the individual capturing and relocating the tortoises must complete the FWC online training prior to capturing gopher tortoises. If the tortoises are relocated off-site, a permitted authorized agent must capture and relocate the tortoises.

The second permit, for conservation, are for development projects which require the relocation of gopher tortoises when more than 10 burrows occur on the development site. This permit allows for relocation off-site to a FWC-certified Recipient Site.

The staffers reported that in 2021, 2,100 off-site relocation permits were issued for 17,000 tortoises.

The relocation program, developed in coordination with stakeholders, is market-driven and provides long-term conservation for tortoises relocated to private lands.

The recipient site owners set per-tortoise fees to offset the costs of implementing the program. Registered agents charge a separate fee and typically manage the permitting process, including securing reservations at recipient sites and removing, marking and transporting the tortoises that need to be relocated.

“Increased development trends have increased the demand for recipient sites,” wrote the FWC staffers. “FWC staff is working closely with stakeholders to add new recipient site capacity, reduce barriers for permittees; reduce delays in identifying available capacity at current sites; and provide support and expertise to applicants. Additionally, staff is working with public lands to identify sites with suitable gopher tortoise habitat to become recipient sites.

Since the program began in 2008, more than 100 sites have been permitted as recipient sites for gopher tortoises. Of these, 75 percent are private sites, with the remaining on public lands. Private sites, which must be a minimum of 25 acres, have added more than 60,000 acres to conservation lands through the easement process. Capacity at these sites varies as permits are issued and tortoises are relocated.

“The capacity remaining at permitted recipient sites are 9,400 spaces,” reads the staffers’ report.

To address concerns related to recipient sites, staff have been working with more than 40 landowners to bring sites into the system, the staffers said. The process for enrolling in the program can take several weeks to several months, with the time period dependent on conducting surveys, establishing trust documents and filing easements. Capacity for an additional 4,000 tortoises is anticipated based on sites currently in the queue for permitting.

“One concern within the program is the lag that occurs between the time an authorized agent reserves recipient site spaces, relocates the tortoises, and then releases additional capacity,” they wrote. “Improving coordination between donor and recipient sites, and the timeframes for reporting to the FWC, should provide for more ‘real-time’ data on recipient site capacity and allow for unused spaces to re-enter the system more quickly.

The 2020 version of the Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines relaxed the 100-mile rule to allow for an exception if an applicant cannot find adequate capacity for the estimated number of tortoises to be relocated from a donor site on a permitted recipient site within 100 miles.

“We are temporarily expanding this to allow permitted recipient sites to receive tortoises from anywhere in the state,” they wrote. “Other temporary measures are being implemented on a case-by-case basis, when an applicant demonstrates need. These include holding times for tortoises, survey timeframes and additional relocation options.”


Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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