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Recognizing the gopher tortoise's right to exist

Those darned gopher tortoises, always getting in the way of progress. If only they would come out of their shells long enough to see that the places they choose to dig their homes are the same spots where people want to build subdivisions, schools and roads. How inconsiderate of them.

The tortoises are almost as bad as those rude manatees, which insist on resting and raising their young in the same bays and rivers where humans want to build palatial homes and pilot speeding boats on their way to prime fishing holes. Don't they get it?

As Citrus County grows, it is no surprise that development continues to encroach on the animal habitats, including those of protected species such as gopher tortoises, scrub jays and manatees. The tortoises now are wreaking havoc in Citrus County on plans for highways and a new school, forcing construction delays and adding to the project costs. All because they want to live where nature has hard-wired them to dig their homes.

In one-on-one battles with bulldozers, these creatures invariably lose. Last week, however, the tortoises turned into superheroes.

Without even knowing it, they got Citrus County to stop blindly burying the diggers alive in their own burrows if they happen to be in the way. Ever humble and unassuming, the tortoises have no idea the sort of governmental contortions their plight has inspired, led by humans hoping to save their lives.

Not that anyone in Citrus County government truly wants the animals to be killed. It's just that they have jobs to do, deadlines to meet and bosses _ from elected officials to taxpayers _ to keep happy. The county is involved in complicated and expensive projects to widen heavily traveled County Roads 491 and 486, and the tortoises are in the way.

The county already has paved over the tortoise burrows along CR 491, but the critters along CR 486 may get a reprieve. The county has paid a fee to mitigate the impact if it happens to bury the tortoises, but workers will do what they can to save them. This may lead to a new policy, if approved next month by the County Commission, of trying harder to save the tortoises.

Officials at the Citrus County School District have been down this same road and have reached the same destination.

Back in 1988, as the district prepared to build Rock Crusher Elementary School, officials had to decide the fate of dozens of gopher tortoises whose burrows honeycombed the site. In the face of public outcry, the district decided to move many of the tortoises to another part of the building site.

The project worked out fine. The school was built, the tortoise burrows became part of an on-site nature trail, and Rock Crusher adopted the gopher tortoise as its mascot.

Last week, a new gopher tortoise flap emerged, this one at the site of the new Renaissance Center in Lecanto. Superintendent David Hickey had four possible solutions and he immediately rejected those that involved burying the burrowers. The district will have the tortoises dug out and moved, possibly to district-owned land.

Sure, this adds more time and costs to the projects, but it is the right thing to do. After all, it's not the tortoises' fault that they are in the way. They are just doing what gopher tortoises are supposed to do: dig homes in the sand. The humans are the ones causing the problem.

It is always a tough balancing act. For every person arguing that we should save creatures there is another yelling that the government is wasting tax dollars. But humans do have responsibilities as stewards of the planet to respect the rights of other living things to exist. Not everything is a question of dollars and cents.

Besides, state law says gopher tortoises are a species of special concern, meaning that people are prohibited from harming, moving, disturbing or molesting the animals. Even if you wish to ignore the laws of nature, you violate the laws of man at your own risk.

Confrontations between man and beast are inevitable as more people move into Citrus County and highways, homes, businesses and schools push the creatures deeper into their habitats. Resolving these conflicts in ways that are at least somewhat fair to the animals, at least when the county or the school district is involved, will add to the projects' costs.

But not very much. We're talking a few thousand dollars in projects that cost in the millions. It is a small price to pay to keep some nature in the Nature Coast.