Wekiva Parkway gopher tortoises face rough road
The reptile was excavated days ago from the path of Wekiva Parkway construction. Suggesting the physique of a small throw pillow, but dense at nearly 8 pounds, it was carried in a plastic bin to a forest a few miles away.
With a practiced hand, biologist Joel Johnson dug a modest replica of a burrow and lowered the tortoise into what the female likely would abandon eventually for her own digs. The task furthered this standout statistic: No region in the state relocates the imperiled species in such a fashion nearly as often as Central Florida.
“Not bad, huh?” said Johnson, from one of the many firms under contract with the Department of Transportation, of his burrow talents. “Maybe I could be a tortoise in another life.”
The tortoise was one of nearly 800 spared from parkway harm at a cost of nearly $1.9 million to state road builders. Both figures will rise as work continues on a toll road to span from Mount Dora to Sanford and bridge the Wekiva River.
That spending of more than $2,300 per tortoise, a terrestrial denizen that some Floridians confuse for a riverine turtle, amounts to the price of saving a “keystone” species. The animal and its ways are essential to the survival of many animals.
State officials concluded about a decade ago that tortoises faced oblivion.
They had been feasted upon, obliterated by developers and victimized by a now-outdated mind-set that forest fires were destructive rather than rejuvenating, which affected plants that tortoises forage on.
In 2007, tortoises were reclassified from species of special concern to the more dire rank of threatened.
That ended a long era in which developers paid what environmentalists and animal-rights activists decried as “blood money” for permits to entomb the animals at project sites.
They must now be moved.
Florida reptile scholar Dick Franz said he and his mentor, Walter Auffenberg, published a paper in the late 1970s that warned of gopher tortoises’ doom.
“We were very, very concerned about the longevity of the species on planet Earth,” Franz said. “We said that by the year 2000, they could be extinct in Florida.”
There were no tortoise protections then, and on back roads, the researchers found piles of shells, evidence that on local menus were animals that otherwise live as long as humans.
Also not appreciated, he said, was the role of tortoises as phenomenal diggers. Their burrows – deep tunnels a dozen feet or longer – are home to nearly 350 species.
Some, such as the Florida mouse and gopher frog, live in the burrows. Others, including imperiled Eastern indigo snakes and burrowing owls, rely on tortoise accommodations to escape fire, cold and predation.
Burrows remain around 72 degrees, winter and summer, as does spring water.
“Obviously, we’re at 2018, and they are still here,” Franz said, attributing their resilience to a ramping up of regulations and broader awareness of that a web of life depends on tortoises.
“My feeling is we still have fairly large numbers of tortoises. Most are on state or federal lands and, in some cases, county preserves. That’s where the key concentrations are. On private lands, it’s a crapshoot,” Franz said.
Private property in Orange County until 2007 had been a killing field.
Crawling with the reptiles and churning with development, the county led the state with more than 7,000 permitted for entombment by developers.
Still today, the Orlando region holds a commanding lead in tortoise disturbance, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Nearly 28,500 tortoises were relocated in Florida from 2007 through last year. Of those, 44 percent, or 12,409, were from Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola, Brevard and Volusia counties.
Orange stands in a league apart with 4,369.
Among more recent construction causing the most relocations are the Wekiva Parkway and natural-gas pipelines of Florida Power & Light Co. Also high on the list are housing developments, such as those by D.R. Horton and Toll Brothers in Orange County.
While tortoise No. 200 was toted a short distance to Rock Springs Run State Reserve, the vast majority – 658 – uprooted by Wekiva Parkway construction were carted to Sumter County conservation tracts.
Of the rest, 107 went to Okeechobee County, 19 to Osceola and 14 to Seminole State Forest in Lake County.
State officials encourage relocations to protected lands.
Deborah Burr, coordinator of the state’s tortoise program, said there are still many tortoises in Orange County.
“We don’t have a census on exactly how many, but there are definitely a lot,” Burr said. “There is still a lot of land, even if it is hard to imagine, that has not been developed.”
Her agency, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is gathering tortoise counts on protected lands.
A map from that effort is glaring for Orange County’s status; it now has no natural or relocated populations that are deemed viable or long-term.
Rural areas elsewhere in Central Florida are dotted with major refuges.
When and if tortoises will be removed from the list of threatened species is yet to be determined.
“I think they are doing much better,” Burr said. “Obviously we’ve changed a lot about how we managed them.”
Burrows dug by gopher tortoises benefit 350 other species, including the Florida pine snake (state listed as a threatened species) and eastern indigo snake (federally listed as a threatened species). In Central Florida, the population is in decline due to urban growth and development.
Conservation status: Threatened in Florida. Federally protected in Southern Mississippi, and part of Alabama and Louisiana.
Size: Up to 15 inches long
Weight: Eight to 15 pounds
Lifespan: Up to 80 years in the wild
Burrow length and depth: Average 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep
Diet: Grass, plants, berries
Geography: Southeastern U.S.
Habitat: Dry land, sandy soil, longleaf pine forests
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission