Flagler Beach men strive to save gopher tortoises
Species listed as threatened in Florida
FLAGLER BEACH — In a way, Art Woosley has adopted the creature he has dubbed an “orphan.”
He notes the attention granted to preserving right whales, manatees, scrub jays and sea turtles, and wishes more attention would be afforded to the gopher tortoise, which is listed by the state of Florida as “threatened.”
“I believe in every cause,” he said. “I’ll fight for every cause. But this species, which has been on Earth for millions and millions of years, is threatened with extinction here.”
The former member of the now-disbanded Flagler Beach Environmental Preservation Council has indeed labored on behalf of those other animals. But several years ago, he recognized that the “long forgotten” gopher tortoise had no champion.
He’s taken on the challenge of preserving that species ever since.
Dick Ricardi, who helps Woosley in his efforts, called attention to his friend’s tenacity.
“Woosley is the type of guy who does not give up,” he said. “I’ve gotten discouraged and thought, ‘That’s it.’ But Woosley keeps after me.”
The men have devoted many hours to locating burrows, particularly those that appear to lie in the path of development, which poses a particular threat. They report their findings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to get them documented, and they put up signs — some they’ve made themselves — to alert the public to the presence of gopher tortoise burrows.
They are realistic about the prospects of success.
“We’re not trying to save the world, but we’re trying to save the gopher tortoises in our area,” said Ricardi. “And we can hope others in the state are doing the same.”
Said Woosley, “If we can save the occasional gopher, that’s one for us. One for the environment.”
Adult gopher tortoises measure 9 to 11 inches long. They have large, stumpy legs and flattened, shovel-like front legs they use to dig their burrows.
The burrows, usually dug in high, dry, sandy soil, can go as deep as 15 feet and as long as 40. The entries are easily recognized by their distinctive half-moon shape, and an apron of fresh soil at the entrance to the burrow indicates the presence of its occupant.
The tortoises live throughout the Southeastern U.S. and can be found in every county in Florida.
But the animal is in decline. Estimates indicate a loss of as much as 80 percent of the population in the last century. This is generally due to reduced habitat from increased development, according to the conservation commission.
The state listed the species as threatened in 1975, downgraded that four years later, and restored its status to threatened in 2007.
It is illegal to harm, harass, capture or kill a gopher tortoise or damage its burrow or eggs.
Woosley is concerned about what happens when those burrows stand in the way of construction.
“Once that blade goes down, the destruction is terrible,” he said. “It’s really terrible.”
According to Woosley, tortoises buried alive can die of dehydration, starvation or asphyxiation over a period of three months.
He calls the fines imposed on violators “a slap on the wrist” and points out that it may not always be possible to get someone to respond quickly if he sees a violation under way.
“An FWC officer will respond, but can I get one at 3 p.m. on a Friday?” he asks.
Indeed, conservation commission officers have their hands full. Lt. Scott Dack said he has five officers to cover a three-county area. Still, he does what he can.
When Woosley calls him to report the existence of a burrow on land likely to be cleared, Dack will photograph it, mark its GPS location and document it with the city. The city building department can then advise a developer seeking a permit of the existence of the burrow.
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Law-abiding developers will pay the costs of relocating any gopher tortoises found on their sites, but some might be deterred by the expense and delays.
“Most builders and developers would gladly let you come in and take the tortoise, but if it’s going to be tied up in red tape where it takes a month or two to get your permit back, they don’t want to wait when they’re building a $600,000 home,” Woosley said.
In this way, the intent of the law essentially backfires, providing an incentive for violations, he said.
“This doesn’t work well for the tortoise in the long run,” Woosley said.
In addition, he said it can cost thousands of dollars to relocate a single tortoise to a designated reserve.
Woosley said he would remove the tortoises himself but as a private citizen, he’s forbidden by law from doing so.
He said he would like to see specially designated groups of volunteers tasked with ensuring that conservation commission rules are followed in each municipality.
In the meantime, he wants to spread the word about the plight of the gopher tortoise. He would like more people “to be aware of what’s around them. »
« In other words, more eyes out there to observe and let somebody know,” he said.
Anyone who suspects a violation can call the conservation commission’s toll-free hotline at 888-404-3922.