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Hernando County will relocate gopher tortoises before landfill work

The gopher tortoise is a protected species in Florida, and their burrows in the Hernando County landfill are in two sections. Bids will be taken from specialized contractors to relocate them.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2010)

The gopher tortoise is a protected species in Florida, and their burrows in the Hernando County landfill are in two sections. Bids will be taken from specialized contractors to relocate them.

BROOKSVILLE — One of the first steps in a multimillion-dollar project to close two sections of the Hernando County landfill is to find new homes for dozens of hard-shelled critters that live nearby.

The plan to cap garbage cells One and Two calls for a plastic liner covered by a 6-inch-deep layer of dirt across a total of 19 acres, said Scott Harper, Solid Waste Services manager.

The county will save hundreds of thousands of dollars by taking that dirt from another area of the 386-acre landfill site off U.S. 98, north of Brooksville.

As Harper put it: "Why go buy it when I have it here?"

First, though, the county will have to move the inhabitants of 108 active gopher tortoise burrows on site. The burrows are included in a biological site survey completed earlier this month by Coastal Engineering of Brooksville. Many of the burrows were identified as the homes of juvenile and sub-adult tortoises.

The gopher tortoise is a protected species in Florida, so the county needs a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to move them. Contractors that specialize in gopher tortoise relocation will submit bids for the project on Sept. 14. Asked for his best guess of what the price tag might be, Harper offered a "really rough" estimate of $80,000.

The tortoises are in two places. One is a roughly 37-acre tract east of the Suncoast Parkway that is the future site of Cell Four, so the land will have to be excavated anyway as part of that cell's construction several years from now. The area is covered in pine trees planted years ago that are now about six to eight inches in diameter. The county will sell the trees, Harper said.

The majority of the tortoises are in a 20-acre clearing on the south side of the property where excess dirt not used to cap the cells will be stored.

The plan is to have the tortoises removed by November, about the time the cell capping project will be put out to bid, Harper said.

The capping project could start in January and be completed in three to four months.

The price tag for the project should come in under $3 million, Harper said.

"And that's a good deal," he said, citing a still sputtering economy that helped bring down construction costs.

One variable affecting the final bill will be fuel costs. The majority of the expense for the capping project is for the plastic liner, which is a petroleum product, Harper said. Sod is planted on top of the dirt layer.

The county already has the money for the capping project. State law requires landfill operators to set aside funds to cover the cost of closing a landfill and for long-term maintenance. Hernando has about $8 million in its fund, Harper said.

The county opened Cell Three last September with a couple of months to spare before the existing cells reached capacity. The new cell is expected to last about 15 years.

Relocating gopher tortoises is often part of the cost of construction in Florida. The species favors sandhills, scrubland, oak hammock and dry pine flatwoods but can also be found in pastures and old fields.

It's impossible to know the final price tag for relocation until the work is finished and a final tortoise count is done. The county is paying about $63,000 to two firms to relocate an estimated 60 tortoises to accommodate the widening of Sunshine Grove Road.

Relocation is preferable to what happened before 2007, when developers could pay FWC for a permit allowing them to disturb land without regard for tortoises, said George Heinrich, owner of Heinrich Ecological Services in St. Petersburg.

But moving tortoises is still fraught with problems, possibly spreading disease, skewering gender ratios and upsetting social behavior, Heinrich said.

"Of course, the consulting firms support relocation because there's a bundle of money to be made, and from a humane perspective people are just glad they're not being buried alive," Heinrich said. "But there are a lot of other animals that are being buried alive, and there is little concern for the loss of upland habitat."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando County will relocate gopher tortoises before landfill work 08/30/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 7:51pm]
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