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Hernando County considers cost-saving alternative in removal of gopher tortoises

BROOKSVILLE — They're protected and important to the environment, but gopher tortoises also can be expensive impediments to construction projects.

That's because they like to live in the same places where people want to build.

For Hernando County government, gopher tortoises have added up to tens of thousands of dollars in extra costs on recent projects. So county commissioners recently asked their staff to research alternatives to pricey gopher tortoise removal specialists.

On Tuesday, the County Commission will consider a plan that could cut the cost of tortoise removal and relocation in half. No longer would outside experts be hired; instead, the county would train staffers to do the work and use county land to provide new homes for the tortoises.

County staffers examined several sites for suitability, the condition of the habitat and the current population of gopher tortoises. Lake Townsen Preserve, in the northeast part of the county, offered the best option.

Lake Townsen has about 300 acres of suitable sandy-soil habitat and is currently overgrown with vegetation. Only about 30 tortoises live there now.

But once the county does several controlled burns on the site and other land-management functions over the next couple of years, the property will be able to support many more tortoises, according to Jim King, the county's conservation lands specialist.

Development of that property as a recipient site will cost about $95,100, but the county might be able to pay for a portion of that with state permit/mitigation fees, King said. The county wouldn't apply to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for a permit until the land is ready to go.

The tortoises would improve the habitat once they move in because they dig deep holes that serve as shelter for other animals, from rodents to snakes, King said.

According to the proposal, the county could get a permit to place two or possibly three tortoises on each acre. While the numbers vary widely, an average of about 40 tortoises need to be relocated from the sites of county projects each year, county staffers concluded. That means the county would have room for the animals for a decade or more.

Once the tortoises are moved to the property, they would live in a fenced area for at least six months to get acclimated to their new home, since the tortoises would otherwise try to return to their old territory.

"After six months, they would lose their desire to go back to Spring Hill or wherever we get them from,'' King said.

He said that he would need to be certified to manage the relocation site and that someone from county transportation services would also need to be certified to remove tortoises, if the commissioners move forward with the proposal.

Even with the costs of the controlled burns and the training, the county would save money in the long run. The staff calculated overall relocation costs of $876 per tortoise if two were allowed per acre and $574 per tortoise if three were allowed.

That compares to the approximately $1,669 per tortoise the county paid for its last two tortoise removal projects, one at the county landfill and the other that was part of the widening and improvements on Sunshine Grove Road, west of Brooksville.

"I don't think there's any question that we will save some money,'' King said.

In the staff report, King noted other "bonus benefits'' of taking on tortoise relocation.

"The ability to handle (gopher tortoise) relocations with county staff should expedite project timelines by eliminating the need to write scopes of work, competitively bid … relocations and manage contractors,'' he wrote.

In addition, "by managing the sand hills for protected species, the county can demonstrate responsible stewardship of the natural areas on the land donated by the U.S. Department of the Interior and used as Lake Townsen Preserve,'' King wrote.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County considers cost-saving alternative in removal of gopher tortoises 05/18/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 18, 2012 7:55pm]
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