FL’s homely gopher tortoises: ‘It’s kind of questionable how long they can persist,’ biologist says

July 30, 2020 7:00 am

A female gopher tortoise dines at Smyrna Dunes Park. Credit: Andrea Westmoreland via Wikipedia Commons

Gopher tortoises are homely creatures. They have a face that only another gopher could love.

I saw one once that gave me the most baleful glare, like an old man about to launch into a rant about kids these days. Then he peed all over the equipment that a photographer had set up to capture his portrait.

You don’t see gophers often. They spend their days hiding under the scrub sandhills, oak hammocks, and wiregrass flatwoods, hanging out in burrows they dug (hence the name “gopher”). They will emerge in early morning and late afternoon to forage for food and look for other gophers, probably so they can grouse to each other about what us humans are doing.

Maybe if they were prettier critters, more well-mannered and sociable, Floridians would take better care of them. Instead, it seems that their homes are constantly getting in our way.

The subject of gopher tortoises came up last week at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting. Some environmental groups asked the commissioners to close a big loophole in the regulations protecting the tortoises.

The commissioners took no immediate action because they move about as slowly as … well, you know. Instead, their staff promised to study it and bring a recommendation back sometime next year.

The killing of tortoises

Right now, the state’s rules say any developer who wants to build on land occupied by gopher tortoises is required to hire someone to track down every burrow and move the tortoises somewhere else before they can clear the land.

According to Melissa Tucker, deputy director of the wildlife commission’s habitat and species protection division, the state has so far issued 1,600 permits to relocate about 60,000 tortoises in the past decade. About 100 people did the relocation work last year, she said.

Landowners who aren’t developing their property have to follow what are called “best management practices” if they find tortoise burrows.

To me, “best management practices” is akin to telling people, “Hey, you ought to put on a mask to combat coronavirus,” but not requiring them to do it. I suspect the level of compliance is similar, too. Nevertheless, at least those folks are expected to do something.

But the state doesn’t require farmers or timber companies to do anything at all. The rules say they have carte blanche to deal with those pesky gophers in any way that’s convenient, even if it involves “incidental take” — i.e., killing — of tortoises.

“They don’t even have an incentive to follow the best management practices,” said Kent Wimmer of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

Both those industries have been exploiting that loophole for years, wiping out an untold number of tortoises, according to Matt Aresco, director of the Nokuse Plantation, a 55,000-acre Panhandle preserve where a lot of gophers have been relocated to make way for development.

“You see a beautiful sand hill that gets turned into a pine plantation, and you just know there were gopher tortoises on it,” he told me this week. “We had a 500-acre property right next to us that was converted to a sod farm, and I know there were gopher tortoises there, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

You could argue that this is unfair to the developers, who still have to go get permits and move the gophers, he said. But some developers know how to exploit the loophole too. They buy farmland or a plot of timber, use the exemption to clear the land of gopher burrows, then proceed with their full development plans without bothering about the permit.

Living underground

Here’s the thing about gopher tortoises, though: While they aren’t too sociable toward people, they don’t mind having a little company while they’re underground.

Tortoises dig holes that are up to 40 feet long and 18 feet deep, which means they have lots of room for other critters to crash. The burrows provide homes for about 300 different types of animals, including several on the endangered species list, such as the eastern indigo snake.

So when a bulldozer buries the burrows, they’re suffocating not just the tortoises but everything else that’s down there, too.

The agriculture/silviculture exemption has been in the rules for 12 years, according to Laurie MacDonald, a biologist who has studied gophers and is the former president of Defenders of Wildlife’s Florida chapter. She told wildlife commissioners that their staff had promised her in 2015 that the agency was going to eliminate that loophole — yet five years later it’s still there.

Despite MacDonald’s comments showing they had dropped the ball, the wildlife commissioners didn’t respond to the expressed concerns about the exemption. They did approve some other new rules, including one that says it’s illegal to paint a gopher tortoise (yes, that’s been a problem — one in Hillsborough County was painted pink and one in Lake County was painted red).

The Florida Farm Bureau Federation provided this comment for the column:

“Agriculture on the landscape provides a multitude of animal species a favorable environment to live and thrive holistically with the farming or ranching operation. Protection for species listed as endangered and threatened can be more effectively achieved by providing incentives, such as best management practices to farmers and ranchers, rather than imposing land use restrictions and penalties. Part of a farm family’s love for agriculture providing habitat and watching out for the animals on their farm. Farmers have a good understanding that all species have a role to play in sustainability.”

A spokesperson for the timber industry said it would oppose any change in the state’s rules.

“We believe the current permit system is very effective in protecting gopher tortoises,” Laura Bosworth, director of forestry and regulatory affairs for the Florida Forestry Association, told me. Changing the current rules would “decrease the likelihood that a landowner would do anything to benefit gopher tortoises, or to keep their land in forestry.”

All in all, Bosworth said, “the population of the gopher tortoise in Florida speaks for itself.”

One commissioner, Vice Chairman Mike Sole — a utility executive who served as secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection under Charlie Crist — said he thought the state’s work on protecting gopher tortoises was “a phenomenal success.”

A threatened species

Despite Sole’s rosy assessment, gopher tortoises are classified as a “threatened” species in Florida. Tucker said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether to add Florida’s gopher tortoises to the federal endangered species list.

When I talked to Aresco and another expert on gopher tortoises, St. Petersburg biologist George Heinrich, they were not nearly so optimistic about whether Florida’s Official State Tortoise will stick around Florida much longer.

“I don’t think they have a very bright future,” Heinrich said. “It’s kind of questionable how long they can persist.”

Heinrich told me he even worries about the ones that have been relocated ahead of their burrows being filled with dirt. Some of them go to small refuges that are too far from where other gopher tortoises live. Under those circumstances, they’re unlikely to reproduce and grow the population.

You could argue that the tortoises are in this fix because of the state’s original rules. For 16 years, the state allowed developers to write a check for buying up tortoise habitat and in exchange they got permission to bulldoze right over the tortoise burrows, trapping them inside to suffocate along with all their tenants.

This system, which saved habitat without saving the animals using it, was known as “pay-to-pave.” The state handed out permits to bury 94,000 gopher tortoise burrows before changing its rules.

Is this any way to treat the animal that kept a lot of Floridians from starving during the Depression?

Herbert Hoover had been elected on the promise to put two chickens in every pot. In the years following the 1929 stock market crash, poor Floridians often ate the then-plentiful gopher tortoises, sarcastically dubbing them “Hoover chickens.”

I think this explains why gopher tortoises look the way they do.

Honestly, if I were a gopher tortoise and saw how people treat me and my family now, I’d glare at every Floridian I saw. Wouldn’t you? You might even be inclined to pee on them.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.