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Developer, volunteers team up to save tortoises

Developer, volunteers team up to save tortoises

Citrus County gopher tortoises to be spared bulldozing, relocated to Eglin

By Michael D. Bates

About 40 to 50 gopher tortoises living on 27 acres in the Westchase subdivision will be packing their bags this week and getting a free ride to their new home at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

<div class="source">ZODEE TREIER/For the Chronicle</div><div class="image-desc">Michael G. Czerwinski, licensed professional geologist and professional wetland scientist, uses a puller to pull gopher tortoises by the shell out of their burrows in the platted community of Westchase on Monday in Lecanto. “It’s the least stressful way,” Czerwinski said. “There is really an art to it.”</div><div class="buy-pic"><a href="/photo_select/140746">Buy this photo</a></div>

ZODEE TREIER/For the Chronicle
Michael G. Czerwinski, licensed professional geologist and professional wetland scientist, uses a puller to pull gopher tortoises by the shell out of their burrows in the platted community of Westchase on Monday in Lecanto. “It’s the least stressful way,” Czerwinski said. “There is really an art to it.”
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Actually, the reptiles are lucky to be alive — despite being protected, the whole bunch of them could have legally been killed.

Michael Czerwinski, president of MGC Environmental Consultants in Lecanto, is working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and several volunteers to capture the tortoises and send them on their journey to Eglin. The property, located off West Tortuga Loop, is slated to be developed with new homes soon after Thanksgiving.

In 2007, the state put the gopher tortoise on its threatened species list. That means any site designated for site work or construction must be cleared of all tortoises before work begins — a sometimes costly and lengthy process.

But this particular developer didn’t have to abide by that regulation, because the property was permitted before 2007. He could have simply bulldozed the property, killing the animals.

Hardly a humane option, Czerwinski said.

So after Czerwinksi obtained the proper permits and receiving permission from the property owner in Ohio — who Czerwinski said knew next to nothing about gopher tortoises — the crew went to work Monday morning to save the reptiles. He expected the work to wrap up in a few days.

Czerwinski had several ways to trap the tortoises. On Monday, he was using a handmade 18-foot “puller” to explore a burrow. The flexible steel rod has a blunt tip used to painlessly hook the back end of the shell of the tortoise, which can be buried as deep as 20 feet to 30 feet underground.

It’s just like fishing, he joked. “Once you hook them, I can get them out pretty quick.”

These particular reptiles will join a growing number at the new gopher tortoise refuge at Eglin Air Fore Base.

Eglin has set aside about 280,000 acres as habitat for gopher tortoises, which can grow to be up to 15 inches long, weigh 8 pounds to 15 pounds and can live up to 80 years in the wild.

Eglin wildlife managers plan to accept at least 500 gopher tortoises over the next year.

Justin Johnson, chief of wildlife management for Eglin Air Force Base, said Citrus County’s tortoises will live the good life there. After getting health tests and identifications, they will join their fellow tortoises in “our super high-quality longleaf pine forests,” he said.

“We’ll take good care of them, I promise you,” he said.

Perpetuating the species eliminates the need for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, Johnson said.

Czerwinski and his volunteers will be recognized for their efforts the week of Thanksgiving when the president of the Florida Humane Society is scheduled to visit the Westchase excavation site.

Meanwhile, Czerwinski said residents can take pride in knowing the local tortoises have been saved and are headed to safety.

“You can be proud of our Citrus County gopher tortoises,” he said. “They will be up at Eglin Air Force Base making babies and perpetuating the species.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-5660 or mbates@chronicleonline.com.