Apopka shells out nearly $100,000 to evict gopher tortoises

from the Orlando Sentinel

Apopka will shell out nearly $100,000 to relocate gopher tortoises whose burrows stand in the way of an important water project.

Surveyors discovered dozens of deep holes dotting an empty field adjacent to the Northwest Recreation Complex where the city wants to carve out two lined ponds for reclaimed water. The reptiles that dug those burrows are a protected species in Florida and, by law, must be carefully extracted and moved.

“It’s a fact of life,” Mayor Joe Kilsheimer said of the expense of relocating gopher tortoises.

File photo: Gopher tortoise rescue Three baby gopher tortoises are among dozens removed from the Meadows of Maude Helen construction site near Apopka. (David Breen)

Three baby gopher tortoises are among dozens removed from the Meadows of Maude Helen construction site near Apopka. (copyrite Orlando Sentinel / David Breen)

Since 2009, when new state guidelines to protect the species went into effect, more than 14,000 of the shelled critters have been moved safely from the path of new roads, homes and myriad commercial projects in Florida, according to figures kept by the state Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Before then, Florida allowed developers to pay a mitigation fee and bury tortoises alive, a policy derided by animal-welfare advocates as “pay to pave.”

The biggest expense for Orange County’s second-largest city isn’t digging up the elaborate burrows but paying someone certified by the state wildlife agency to take in the critters. In this case, the city expects to pay the Allen Broussard Conservancy in Osceola County $60,000, or $800 per gopher tortoise.

The bill could rise if the consultant supervising the excavation of the burrows finds more than 75 gopher tortoises, the number estimated on the site.

The gopher tortoise, while considered an expensive annoyance by some developers, is a “keystone” species in Florida, playing a crucial role in the ecosystem, said Deborah Burr, coordinator of the wildlife agency’s gopher-tortoise program. Its deep and long burrow provides shelter for 350 other species.

The state has permitted 40 properties to take in displaced gopher tortoises.

The sites are inspected annually by state wildlife biologists to ensure the habitat remains fit for gopher tortoises, plant-eating reptiles that prefer sandy soils.

The relocation sites usually charge $1,000 per animal, sometimes more. Those fees are high, partly because transplanted tortoises must be fenced in until they adapt to their new digs.

“They have a very strong homing sense,” Burr said.

Some have walked themselves to death to return to their former homes.

Apopka weighed excavation bids from three companies, ranging from a low of $9,350 to a high of $41,000.

The state charges a permit fee of $300 per animal.

Burr said capturing the critters can be laborious as most live underground in tunnels that are 25 feet long or longer. Often the topsoil must be delicately scraped away with a backhoe, a few inches at a time.

The gopher tortoise gets its name from its gopher-like digging ability. They were once dubiously known as “Hoover chickens” because the meaty reptiles provided easy — if not exactly tasty — meals for hungry and desperate Southern families during the Depression-era presidency of Herbert Hoover.

Gopher tortoises also are poor swimmers.

State wildlife officials issued a public reminder in April, cautioning against “helping’ the land-dwelling reptiles into water. FWC pointed out that gopher tortoises sometimes nest in dunes near sea turtles and may be mistaken for their sea-faring kin, with disastrous results.

Despite the inconvenient expense of gopher tortoises, the water project could be a bargain in the long run for Apopka.

Apopka wants to expand its storage for reclaimed water, which can be distributed to homes and businesses to irrigate lawns and landscaping. The city struck a deal last year with Altamonte Springs to accept more than 7 million gallons a day of reclaimed water through a pipeline now under construction.

“For every gallon of reclaimed water used, we save a gallon of potable water. We greatly expand our ability to serve both residential and commercial customers with potable water, which will be crucial to the city’s future,” the mayor said. “That’s where the savings is.”

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