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Fight to save tortoises an uphill battle

Published Sep. 10, 2005

The wood stakes remained in place for nine months, the pink ribbons indicating something special was below.

Then one morning this spring, a bulldozer began to rumble.

"Stop the car!" Sharon Karsen said to her husband as they drove past the freshly cleared land. But he kept driving, saying there was nothing that could be done.

In a way, he was right. The gopher tortoise that lived in the burrow Karsen marked and diligently monitored was either crushed or buried alive.

"Every time I go by that house," Karsen said Friday afternoon, "I think of that tortoise in the ground. It seems to be an ignored species."

No longer, at least not here. Karsen is taking aim at local and state officials who, she said, inadequately enforce laws protecting the harmless herbivores.

And she is working with an expert from Newberry to start a citizen watchdog group that would rescue tortoises from the inevitable crunch of development.

"I've always been involved in animal issues," Karsen, 58, said, wearing a pair of tan turtle earrings. "I"m usually one of the soldiers but nobody was doing anything about this."

Unlike manatees, tortoises do not attract tourists. They are not cute and they are still relatively abundant.

But scientists say they play a vital role in the ecosystem. More than 300 animal species, including endangered indigo snakes and gopher frogs, rely on tortoise burrows for shelter, especially during periods of cold, heat or drought. A burrow can be up to 45 feet long and 22 feet deep.

As the human population in Florida continues to explode, upland habitat has dwindled, displacing the tortoises and putting the population in direct contact with bulldozers and cars.

Because it is a protected species, developers must obtain permits when destroying tortoise habitats. Some of the animals are moved to other areas on the property or nearby.

In some intances developers pay the state for each tortoise that will be "taken," _ a soft expression for killed _ and the money is used to buy and preserve land elsewhere where tortoises live.

Though these methods are well intentioned, they are failures in the eyes of Ray Ashton of the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative in Newberry.

He said many developers simply bulldoze the burrows and said the preservation land is not maintained. Gopher tortoises need open areas with leafy vegetation, not dense woods.

"Gopher tortoises are really the bastard child of protected species," Ashton said.

Citrus County has one of the worst track records regarding enforcement, he said without providing specific figures.

Gary Maidhof, the county's director of development services, said the county does not have the resources to take a more active role.

The permit procedures put in place by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also require individual landowners to get permission before moving tortoises, which were protected in the 1980s.

But many people do not go through the steps to obtain a permit, if they even know one is required. Moving a tortoises from one piece of property to another is an added hurdle.

Ashton said he has convinced state officials to allow him to try a new approach. He wants to train volunteers in communities like Sugarmill Woods to trap tortoises on land being developed and relocate them.

Trapping a tortoise is relatively simple task. A five-gallon bucket is buried near a mouth of a burrow and paper and sand is placed over the top. When the tortoise returns home, it drops into the pail.

Sugarmill Woods has a "greenbelt" behind every lot that is kept natural and it could be a perfect home for the gopher tortoises.

"People who care should be able to protect them," Ashton said. "The tortoises are going to be here for a very long time. However, we won't hold our breath."

Gail Lucas, president of Sugarmill's property owners' association, said the association is very much behind Karsen and plans to remind builders of their legal obligations.

"We very much value the wildlife here," she said. "While we value our own homes, we do recognize that we live in a greater community."