Florida ordinance weakens protections for endangered Gopher tortoise
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida– The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued an executive order that weakens protections for turtles displaced from development sites around the state and allows indefinite “temporary relocation” measures. The order comes as uncontrolled urban sprawl has caused a shortage of resettlement sites for the rare and beloved turtle.
“The Gopher Turtles are caught in a habitat loss crisis, but the commission suggests this amounts to a temporary storage solution,” said Elise Bennett, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This decision is deeply disappointing and dangerous for these endangered animals, but it’s not a surprise either. For years, the state allowed the development of urban sprawl by simply moving the turtles out of the way. Now there is nowhere to put them.
The order, issued by commission executive director Eric Sutton, broadly overrides a rule that prohibits the relocation of turtles more than 100 miles north or south of a given development site. The “100 mile rule” exists to ensure that turtle populations are moved to areas that support long term population viability and genetic integrity.
Since urban sprawl on the Florida Peninsula consumes much of the turtle’s remaining habitat, deviating from the 100-mile rule will likely direct core turtles of the species’ range to the outlying areas of the Florida Panhandle, where populations may find it difficult to survive.
“We are shocked by the recent executive order, which diminishes the prospects for turtle conservation,” said George L. Heinrich, executive director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. “We have long urged the commission to be more proactive in its conservation efforts for endangered turtles and freshwater turtle species. It is shameful that our national wildlife agency has allowed it to do so. just do better.
The ordinance also allows wildlife officials to approve several “temporary relocation” options for developers to proceed with construction. This allows for “temporary in-place relocation” by keeping turtles in on-site enclosures, waives a maximum “holding time” of 72 hours for turtles, and allows “temporary off-site relocation” to public land.
The ordinance does not provide for any new maximum detention times for turtles and no restrictions on the length of temporary relocation. This can put turtles under high stress and risk spreading disease.
“It is particularly flagrant that the commission supports the use of our public lands as temporary dumps for these beleaguered animals. This shortsighted order shifts the responsibility for conservation from the private developers, who force these turtles out of their homes, to the public, ”Bennett said.
The ordinance also allows wildlife officials to deviate from survey schedules designed to ensure turtles are properly counted and moved. The order will remain in effect for 90 days until it is changed or replaced with another order.
The gopher turtle relocation program is on the agenda for the committee’s December 15 meeting. The panel accepts public comments in writing by December 10 and orally at the meeting.
In 2007, in response to increasing urban sprawl and rules that allowed developers to legally kill, injure and bury waffle turtles in their burrows, Florida passed laws requiring the authorized relocation of turtles to ” recipient sites ”.
Critics of the rule have warned that it will result in a net loss of habitat for the species, resulting in fewer and fewer places for the species to live.
In recent years, a shortage of recipient sites has led to a turtle conservation crisis and sky-high relocation fees for developers, sparking fears that developers are being pressured into bypassing the authorization process altogether. Investigations also revealed poorly managed receptor sites, with sick and dying turtles and poorly managed habitat.
State wildlife officials had worked with turtle experts through the Gopher Tortoise Technical Advisory Group to address these issues in a thoughtful manner before the commission abruptly issued the order.