The idea that development means just destroying or paving over everything is no longer the status quo in North Florida.
Treatment of the gopher tortoise is the perfect example.
Less than 10 years ago, land owners could apply for a permit to simply entomb the animals in their own burrows. Those were called “incidental-take” permits and were issued until 2007.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that 12,690 incidental-take permits were issued in 2006 and another 6,867 in 2007 before the law changed.
Now, state law says all tortoises in the way of development must be captured and relocated to an appropriate recipient site. In St. Johns County, Carter Environmental Services has been busy facilitating many of those relocations.
Ryan Carter, who owns the company, said the treatment of tortoises is a reflection of the change he’s seen in the development industry.
“The developers who are in their 30s and early 40s, they are environmentally conscious,” said Carter, who is 41.
Developer/builder Chris Shee of MasterCraft Builder Group said he agrees with Carter. And it seems to be true even of developers who are of an older generation, as well.
Shee said builders and customers alike are looking for neighborhoods that reflect some reverence for nature, including the tortoises.
“If there’s a tree that we can save, especially if it’s a hardwood, I’m going to save it,” Shee said. “It’s not just clear-cutting the land and clearing the lots. The majority of developers are respecting the environment.”
Carter’s firm helps builders, whether it’s one lot or 2,000, do that with their environmental surveys and tortoise relocation services. Carter said even before the law changed in 2007 many developers chose to move tortoises rather than simply build on top of their burrows. He cited the Bartram Park development as an example.
Now that the law does require relocation, developers have little choice but to comply, and that keeps Carter’s company busy because tortoises are quite prevalent in this county.
“If you get really great land (to develop), you’re going to have gopher tortoises,” Shee said.
Ryan Mauch, with the St. Johns County environmental division, said getting an environmental survey, which includes checking for tortoises, is just part of the building business here.
“They range anywhere from a beach habitat to more sandhill type of (setting),” Mauch said. “It’s one of the more prolific listed species we deal with in this county.
“We make sure somebody like Carter has done an environmental survey and make sure every (tortoise) has been relocated.”
Mauch said most everyone in the development community knows about the prevalence of tortoises here and understands they must be moved. He said it’s usually people who own just a lot or two who are sometimes surprised by the relocation laws.
The hands-on man for moving tortoises for Carter is Mike Glover, an authorized gopher tortoise agent with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He’s become an expert at digging them out of their burrows without causing injury.
Carter used to do the digs himself before Glover was hired and trained in the art.
“It’s kind of like the game Operation,” Carter said. “If you practice enough, you can become very efficient.”
Getting a tortoise out of its burrow is a combination of brawn and precision. That was on display Wednesday morning when Glover pulled a pair of tortoises off a lot in Palm Valley.
Glover located the active burrows and instructed another man to dig with a small backhoe. The top few feet of soil were scraped off, and then Glover went to work with a shovel for the more delicate work.
To find the turtle, agents like Glover use a long PVC probe to keep track of the chamber inside the burrow. The tortoise — almost always just one per burrow — will usually retreat to farthest recess of the burrow, so the digger has to chase it to the very back.
On Wednesday, Glover was able to pluck the two tortoises out of their burrows in about 45 minutes with no injuries to the animals.
He placed the tortoises in Rubbermade containers with some dirt and grass, and they were ready to be transported to their new homes in a sanctuary in Port Orange.
“It’s a fun activity to partake in,” said Glover, who’s been doing the relocations for more than three years. “It’s gratifying to move them out of harm’s way.”
It’s also an expensive situation for a landowner. The customer has to pay for the permit, the work of catching the tortoises and the cost of placing them in a new home.
There is a set of criteria that recipient sites have to meet, and most don’t take the animals for nothing. A typical fee to receive a tortoise is between $750 and $1,100, Glover said. That cost is passed along to the property owner.
The FWC says long-term recipient sites for tortoises must:
■ Contain a minimum of 40 acres of contiguous suitable uplands.
■ Contain soils that provide ample depth for tortoise burrows (depth to seasonal high water table value of 1.5 feet or greater).
■ Provide a plentiful food source (average herbaceous cover of at least 30 percent).
■ Have a sparse or open tree canopy to allow sunlight to reach the gopher tortoises since they do not create their own body heat.
■ Be protected by a conservation easement acceptable to FWC.
Sites are allowed to have four tortoises per acre. They must also provide fencing to keep the tortoise in the site because, otherwise, it might try to walk back to its old home.
There is an alternative, though. Glover said clients who have just a single lot can often revise their plans to avoid disturbing a burrow. As long as a landowner leaves 25 feet around the entire burrow, the animal doesn’t have to be moved.
“That’s the cheapest solution to problem, keep them on the property,” Glover said. “That’s always the best option: to avoid them.”
That also helps maintain the health of the species here. There’s no desire to completely remove tortoises from the county. They aren’t destructive, but they do take up a fair amount of space.
Both Glover and Carter said they enjoy being in the position of helping the officially “threatened” species, whether it’s moving them or helping a landowner come up with a building solution to leave them be.
“I got into this because I love the environment,” Carter said. “We’re stewards of the environment, all of us in this company. It’s good (work) because you’re saving a threatened species. And the recipient sites also protect land as well as a protected species.”
About the gopher tortoise
Status: In Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as threatened. Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place.
Appearance: The gopher tortoise is a moderate-sized, terrestrial turtle, averaging 9–11 inches in length. The shell is oblong and generally tan, brown or gray in coloration. Gopher tortoises can live 40 to 60 years in the wild.
Habitat: Gopher tortoises live in well-drained sandy areas with a sparse tree canopy and abundant low growing vegetation. The burrows average 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep.
Diet: The reptiles feed on low-growing plants like wiregrass, broadleaf grasses and legumes. They also eat prickly pear cactus, blackberries, paw-paws and other seasonal fruits.
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission