Hurricane Katrina taught us: Move tortoises because their burrows are threatening levees
St. Johns River Water Management District ecologists were out along the L-73 Levee east of Bull Creek relocating gopher tortoises, whose burrows can threaten the levee during a major flood. Video by Malcolm Denemark, FLORIDA TODAY. FLORIDA TODAY
OSCEOLA COUNTY — In a way, Hurricane Katrina evicted these grumpy-looking guys.
If not for that 2005 mega-storm and the lessons learned from its dam-undermining ways, these lowly reptiles might still have cool digs along the tall earthen levees that guard much of southern Brevard County from the catastrophic floods such storms inflict. Instead, hundreds of these gopher tortoises are being relocated more than 300 miles away, to the Apalachicola National Forest.
No one knows how long these tortoises have burrowed in the L-73 « Jane Green » Levee, where they duck predators and keep cool from blazing sun. They’ve probably been there since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the levees in the1970sfor flood control.
But the tortoises must go, officials say, lest their winding burrows undermine the levee. Even pint-sized tortoises tunnel like mad.
« That little guy had a hole that was like seven feet long, » Mark Brandenburg, a district ecologist said, as he held up a recently captured fist-sized tortoise. The bigger fellas punch holes as deep as 48 feet into the levee, some with multiple offshoots from the main tunnel.
After Katrina flooded New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beefed up levee inspections nationwide. Then, a 2010 inspection of the St. Johns River Water Management District’s levees rated all six « unacceptable. » Deficiencies included seepage, encroachments, unwanted vegetation, erosion, slope stability, and — enter the tortoise — animal control.
Scott McGillicuddy is a former wildlife rehabilitator who is currently working to be re-certified. His passion is caring for turtles and tortoises. Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal
District officials say most of those issues were minor and have been dealt with. They say regional levees would hold, even in severe hurricanes. The district cleared up more than three-quarters of the cited deficiencies to its levees, officials said, many of which, they claim, were based on misunderstandings or missing information. The district devised a system-wide improvement plan that includes $16 million in work between 2015 and 2020 to rectify the remaining deficiencies.
The district also began relocating some 375 gopher tortoises from about a dozen miles of levees in Osceola County. They transport the tortoises to Apalachicola National Forest’s gopher tortoise restoration, relocation and research site in Leon County.