BROOKSVILLE — For nearly 18 years, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued permits to developers that allowed them to bury thousands of gopher tortoises in exchange for paying into a fund to buy land for tortoises elsewhere.
When the "pay-to-pave" program finally ended in 2007, no one was happier than George Heinrich, a St. Petersburg reptile biologist and former co-chairman of the Gopher Tortoise Council.
Despite the program's intent, Heinrich contends the effort was short-sighted at best and, in the end, did next to nothing to protect the species.
"It's a loss that we will never be able to make up, no matter how much land was bought," Heinrich said. "It was disappointing that someone couldn't come up with a better plan."
It's for that reason that Heinrich doesn't see a very bright future for the gopher tortoise. With their natural habitat quickly disappearing, the hard-shelled critters are more threatened than ever. So much so that the animals were added two years ago to Florida's threatened species list.
Heinrich remains more determined than ever to educate people about gopher tortoises and other native turtle species in the hope of slowing their decline.
Saturday, he'll be among a dozen or so experts conducting workshops and lectures at the Chinsegut Nature Center's 10th annual Reptile and Amphibian Festival.
A former biologist at St. Petersburg's Boyd Hill Nature Park, Heinrich operates Heinrich Ecological Services, a St. Petersburg firm that specializes in education programs for the public and private sectors. Though he admits that contemporary conservation efforts have helped to somewhat slow their decline, Heinrich says he believes the greatest threat to the survival of Florida's endangered reptiles and amphibians might always be the public's misconception of them.
"Many people don't understand the value these animals have to our ecology and the role they play in keeping things balanced," Heinrich said. "Not knowing how to co-exist with the animals in your environment can be just as bad as deliberately working to destroy them."
Hernando County, with its abundance of pine forests and sandy soil, is among the state's most habitable areas for gopher tortoises. The creatures can easily dig burrows up to 40 feet long and 18 feet deep, creating a place where it can keep cool during the day and dodge predators. The burrows are known to provide shelter to 360 other species, including several rare species of frogs and snakes.
However, the places the tortoises call home appeal to humans too. As the building boom of the past three decades gobbled up habitat, more and more of the creatures began appearing in back yards. Heinrich says that isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as the homeowner doesn't attempt to feed or move the animal.
"The best thing you can do is leave them alone," Heinrich said. "They wouldn't build a burrow if there wasn't enough food around. And because they have a homing ability that leads them home, moving them just puts them in danger of being struck by a vehicle."
Though he discourages people from running out into the road to rescue a gopher from traffic, Heinrich says that the animal should always be moved to an area in the direction it was traveling.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]