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Gopher it: Student project aims to help tortoises

Gopher it: Student project aims to help tortoises

Advocates continue fight to preserve threatened species

Gopher tortoises thrive in habitats with dry, sandy soil. The reptiles dig burrows that are used by many other animals. NEWS-JOURNAL FILE

How to get involved

– For more information about gopher tortoises, go to MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise. Anyone suspecting a violation can call FWC’s toll-free hotline at 888-404-3922.

– For more information on Klara Acierno’s student project, go to facebook.com/GopherTortoiseCrossing/

– For information on how to get a bumper sticker, email gophertortoisecrossing@gmail.com

– Bumper stickers will also be available at Flagler Sheriff’s PAL tables at community events.

FLAGLER BEACH — Gopher tortoises have a new ally in their fight for survival: seventh-grader Klara Acierno.

Klara is required to do a yearlong community service project for her Florida Virtual School civics class. Among the issues she originally considered were the plight of the sea turtle and feral cats.

But after her mother pointed out a gopher tortoise crossing a busy road between cars, Klara knew where she wanted to place her efforts.

In fact, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission identifies traffic as the second-biggest danger to these creatures, which are listed in Florida as “threatened.”

The gopher tortoise also is considered a keystone species, which means other species in an ecosystem largely depend on burrows left behind by the tortoises and if they are removed, the ecosystem would change drastically.

Klara’s project has two parts, the first of which is to alert motorists of the threat — she’s creating bumper stickers reminding others to watch for the animals.

“It says, ‘Caution,’ and the O is like a little turtle,” she said. “And then there’s a website on the bottom. It’s my Facebook page.”

Which addresses the second part of her project: educating the public.

Her Facebook page features her own photos and video, as well as information about gopher tortoises contributed by various organizations.

Much of her firsthand knowledge of the issue is the result of meeting one of Flagler Beach’s leading gopher tortoise advocates, Art Woosley.

Woosley led Klara and her mother, Kathryn Acierno, on a recent field trip around the city, where he pointed out the animals’ burrows and explained the No. 1 danger: habitat destruction.

In fact, one threat can beget another.

“When the habitat’s gone they wander, looking for other places,” said Woosley.

Thus, greater incidences of tortoises crossing roads.

ECOLOGICAL ALLIES

Woosley and fellow Flagler Beach resident Dick Ricardi have been fighting to save the gopher tortoise pretty much on their own for many years. They have been locating burrows that lie in the path of development and reporting their findings to the conservation commission. And they have posted signs — when they can get them — to alert the public to the presence of the burrows.

Still, many developers simply bury the burrows, Woosley said. This results in the death of the tortoise by dehydration, starvation or asphyxiation over a period of up to three months.

“It’s disgusting, in my mind,” said Woosley.

“It’s sad to think that these creatures are being buried, and it takes months for them to die under there,” said Ricardi. “If you can save just one of them, it’s a big deal.”

Before blaming a developer, however, Woosley cites government regulations and fees as the primary culprit.

Relocating a gopher tortoise is not a simple matter. Only licensed individuals may even touch one. And once they are removed, they must be relocated to an approved site.

It’s not cheap. The state charges fees for removal that start at $300 for a single tortoise but can quickly rise into the thousands of dollars for multiple tortoises. Some of the lots Woosley and Ricardi have surveyed are home to as many as 10 tortoises.

In addition, the owner of the relocation site must be paid.

Woosley sees the resulting delay and costs as a deterrent to developers who might otherwise comply with the law and help preserve the animals.

GAINING TRACTION

Still, the issue is beginning to gain traction with local officials and the public. Woosley said Flagler Beach City Manager Larry Newsom has been proactive in addressing the situation, even leading Woosley to a burrow that had been closed off behind a wood and stone barrier.

Woosley said he was able to remove the obstacles and the animal quickly appeared at the entrance, gasping for breath.

In addition, when a developer applies for a permit, city officials now notify Woosley, who checks out the site. If he finds a burrow, he reports it to the city, which in turn reports it to the state.

“This is something new,” said Ricardi. “We haven’t had that kind of cooperation.”

Woosley hopes to work with the city to create a process that will follow each tortoise from discovery to relocation.

In the meantime, City Commissioner Kim Carney had 20 informational signs printed up and mounted on metal stakes to be placed at burrow sites.

“That was very nice of her,” said Woosley.

Perhaps the biggest news is the creation of a brochure about the gopher tortoise. This is an initiative of Flagler Beach Police Capt. Matthew Doughney, paid for with a grant.

Once the brochures are printed, they will be placed in motels, hotels and restaurants. And they will feature one of Klara’s pictures, something the young photographer called “cool.”

As for Klara, she has a message for the public.

“You need to watch the road when you’re driving,” she said. “And if you see someone building on a lot next to you, you should look around and tell them if there’s a burrow.”