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Agency says it can't afford to put Florida's gopher tortoises on endangered species list

Florida’s now-defunct “pay to pave” plan killed as many as 94,000 gopher tortoises.

Jim Damaske | Times (2007)

Florida’s now-defunct “pay to pave” plan killed as many as 94,000 gopher tortoises.

Florida's gopher tortoises deserve to be added to the nation's list of endangered and threatened species — but the federal agency in charge said Tuesday that it doesn't have the money to do the job.

"We believe it warrants the protection of the Endangered Species Act," said Cindy Dohner, regional administrator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Atlanta office.

But instead of adding gophers to the endangered list, the federal agency will put it on a waiting list with about 250 other species that are also in a holding pattern. That means there will be no new regulations to protect them or their habitat for at least several years.

The cost of completing the job could run as high as $350,000, federal officials said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. Instead, they hope to work with private landowners on finding ways to preserve what's left of the tortoise population.

"Bad decision," said Roy "Robin" Lewis, a board member of WildLaw, a nonprofit environmental law firm that had pushed for the listing. "We are considering an appeal."

Homely as a prune, older than the dinosaurs, gopher tortoises were once common throughout the Southeast, thriving in the scrub sandhills, oak hammocks and wiregrass flatwoods. First described by naturalist William Bartram in 1791, gophers were plentiful enough in the days of the Great Depression that hungry Floridians nicknamed them "Hoover chickens."

They get their gopher name from their habit of making their homes by digging burrows in the sandy soil. The burrows serve as nature's apartment buildings, offering shelter to more than 300 other species, including the gopher frog and the eastern indigo snake, which is a federally protected species.

But the habitat gophers favor also is popular with developers. By 2003, more than 1.7 million acres of Florida land that was once gopher tortoise habitat had been turned into home sites, roads, shopping centers and the like, according to state wildlife officials.

For 16 years, the state's wildlife agency issued permits allowing developers to bury gopher tortoises alive, suffocating them and all the other animals in their burrows.

Between 1991 and 2007, when it ended the "pay-to-pave" program, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued 2,900 permits allowing the death of an estimated 94,000 gopher tortoises.

A report issued in 2006 by a panel of state wildlife experts estimated that the population of gopher tortoises in Florida had declined by more than half in the past 60 to 90 years.

That persuaded state officials to bump the tortoise up on the state's own endangered list to "threatened," one rung below "endangered." Then the agency's board voted unanimously to end the pay-to-pave program, condemned as inhumane and immoral by animal advocates.

"This is long overdue," state wildlife commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said at the time. "What we've done here is wrong, and it's time we made it right."

The suffocation deaths did not play as big a role in the federal agency's decision as the fragmentation of habitat and the mysterious decline in the gophers' reproduction rate, said Dave Hankla of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Jacksonville office.

Gopher tortoises are already listed by federal officials as threatened west of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In 2006, a coalition of environmental groups represented by WildLaw petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to add to the endangered list the gophers living east of those rivers in Florida, Georgia and southern South Carolina.

But the agency had such a backlog of other species to consider, and so little money, that it took five years to reach a conclusion.

"We're happy that the service concluded the science supports listing, but frustrated that the service generally lacks sufficient funding for their (endangered species) obligations," WildLaw senior staff attorney Brett Paben said in an e-mail to the Times. "We are also disappointed that the service apparently doesn't believe the gopher tortoise warrants higher priority treatment."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

About the Gopher tortoise

Latin name: Gopherus polyphemus

Nickname: "Hoover chicken" (during Great Depression)

Size: 9 to 11 inches long

Age: Can live 40 to 60 years

Food: Wiregrass, prickly pear cactus, blackberries, paw-paws.

Habitat: sandhill, pine flatwoods, scrub, scrubby flatwoods

Home: Burrows that average 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep.

Importance: Shares burrow with more than 300 other species, including burrowing owls, Florida mice, indigo snakes opossums, rabbits, gopher frogs

Distinction: only tortoise that occurs east of the Mississippi River.

Agency says it can't afford to put Florida's gopher tortoises on endangered species list 07/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 10:49pm]
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