Waiving Rules for Moving Florida Gopher Tortoises Helps Only Developers
Agency Boosts Builders Transferring Tortoises so They Can Bury Burrows
Last updated 12/10/2021 at 2:25pm
Do you like the neighborhood where you live? I sure like mine.
My wife and I bought a 1926 Craftsman fixer-upper in St. Petersburg back in the mid-1990s, and we've been here ever since. We love the brick streets, the shady oaks, and the down-the-block proximity of a waterfront park.
Our neighbors are pretty cool, too. They include a scientist, a professor, a couple of actors, a newspaper editor, a liquor store manager, and a lawyer (in court she may be a bulldog but in person she's as nice as can be). One neighbor, a retired charter boat captain, brings us eggs from his backyard chickens.
For a while, we had a neighbor who kept a different backyard flock - pair of long-legged emus. They fled their enclosure at least once a month. We were greatly entertained watching the neighbors chasing the fugitive emus back and forth on the brick streets. The emus were incredibly fast. One of my kids says those emu escapes are among his fondest childhood memories.
But what if someone showed up on your doorstep one day to tell you to kiss your neighborhood goodbye, because you had to move?
Suppose you were told that a different kind of resident was moving in, and you couldn't stay in that same neighborhood. No sir, you had to move hundreds of miles away. You'd have different neighbors, different weather, different everything.
You'd be pretty steamed about getting uprooted like that, wouldn't you?
Well, that's what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is now allowing to happen with gopher tortoises.
In an executive order issued on Nov. 18 with no warning, the commission's executive director, Eric Sutton, waived several longstanding rules for moving gopher tortoises out of the way of new development. One rule he waived says you can't move a tortoise more than 100 miles away from its home.
The commission is supposed to get a report on these changes on Dec. 15. The meeting agenda doesn't say anything about the commissioners overturning this boneheaded move, or even informing Sutton, "You're now on Santa's naughty list."
I don't know if the gopher tortoises are upset about this executive order making it easier to evict them. They always look like they're ticked off at us humans, which, as you will soon see, is kind of understandable.
But the biologists who study gopher tortoises are definitely freaked out.
"Nobody knew it was coming," Jeff Goessling, an Eckerd College biology professor who co-chairs the Gopher Tortoise Council, told me. He said when he first read the order "it caused me to go into a state of shrieking."
'Special people in special little suits'
A short drive from my neighborhood is a nature preserve. I took a hike there a while back and, in a couple of hours of wandering the woods, I encountered three gopher tortoises. They didn't look happy to see me, of course, but I was happy to see them, and not just because they are the only tortoise species found east of the Mississippi River.
Gophers are called gophers because they dig burrows. On the surface, all you see is a slit in the ground, but under your feet lies a tunnel that's up to 40 feet long and 18 feet deep. Around 350 other types of creatures inhabit those burrows too - snakes, frogs, etc. - including some that are classified as endangered or threatened.
Seeing the tortoises, and the holes they call home, always makes me feel like I am in the presence of Old Florida. The places they live are usually funky, wild scrublands far from our glittering theme parks and crowded beaches. You usually find them in ancient sand dunes now covered by stands of pine, turkey oak, and thick palmetto.
The big problem with gopher tortoises is that the sandy scrub they love has repeatedly been targeted by developers as high-and-dry spots to build houses. And, as I am sure you know, in Florida nothing - not even an ancient reptile with a hard shell and a baleful glare - is allowed to stand in the way of development.
For 16 years, the wildlife commission gave developers permits to pave right over those burrows and all their inhabitants.
In exchange for these permits, the developers were required to write a check to buy some tortoise habitat elsewhere. So what if the tortoises and their many tenants were smothered to death? The important thing was that development could continue!
The state handed out 94,000 of these "pay-to-pave" permits before biologists reported that Florida's tortoise population had dropped like an Acme-brand anvil in a Roadrunner-versus-Coyote cartoon.
The wildlife commission, perhaps beginning to realize that its job is protecting Florida's wildlife and not its wealthy builders, ended the deadly pay-to-pave program. In its place, starting in 2008, was a new system, one that the agency said would be driven strictly by market forces.
Here's how it works for development companies (other than those law-breakers at Pulte Homes): Before cranking up the bulldozers, developers have to get a state permit to move the tortoises out of the way.
The rules say tortoises can't be relocated more than 100 miles north or south from where they live, or dumped on some nearby public site, or penned up where the development is occurring. They have to go to a licensed "recipient site" where they will be well cared for.
The cost for moving them is set by the owner of that recipient site, who could be a farmer or a rancher or just someone who bought some scrub and wants to save tortoises. So far, the state has issued 114,000 permits for moving gophers out of harm's way. (Nobody moves the snakes and frogs and so forth that are using the burrows too. They just die - even the endangered ones.)
One of the best sites for relocated gophers has been the Nokuse Plantation, a 55,000-acre Panhandle preserve launched by a dirt-road philanthropist named M.C. Davis, whose pool-hustling and poker-playing skills paid his way through both college and law school.
Matt Aresco, the Ph.D. biologist who runs Nokuse, says the preserve has stopped taking in relocated tortoises for the winter. After all, North Florida does get some frigid weather, which is no good for the cold-blooded tortoises. Nokuse will reopen for tortoise transfers in the spring.
But lately Aresco has been inundated by requests from environmental consultants to reconsider. The huge construction boom in Central and South Florida means a lot of builders are searching for somewhere to move a bunch of gopher tortoises so they can wipe out their habitat.
"Every week, we're getting dozens of calls from consultants wanting to use our site," Aresco told me. "Consultants are desperate to find sites. ...The amount of gopher tortoise habitat being destroyed every day is incredible."
With demand rising to the desperation point, guess what's happened to that market-based system.
The per-tortoise price for relocation has suddenly skyrocketed, as indeed the price of a lot of things has gone up lately. Some places that once charged $1,000 per gopher tortoise are now charging developers $6,000. That means moving 20 tortoises, instead of $20,000, would cost a builder $120,000.
As you can imagine, the developers don't like that. Higher prices cut into their profits; you see.
You'd think those sky-high relocation prices would persuade developers that they should avoid tortoises and build elsewhere. Instead, they have been trying to get their pals in the government to cut them a break. Their pals are only too eager to help.
In October, a legislative committee spent an hour quizzing a wildlife commission division director named Melissa Tucker about the gopher tortoise program in general and the soaring prices in particular.
I watched a video of the House State Affairs Committee meeting, and the discussion was so dopey, I swear I could feel my IQ points slipping away as it progressed.
Over and over, the legislators asked what could be done to make the market produce lower prices for their campaign contributors - er, excuse me, "stakeholders." Over and over, Tucker explained that the market-driven system sets the prices, period.
At one point, a representative from Eucheeanna named Brad Drake, trying to fathom why booting a bunch of tortoises out of their burrows could be so costly, asked her, "So is it like, special people in special little suits with special little gloves and they've got to drive up in a special little van with a special little box?" (I suspect he was thinking of Oompa-Loompas.)
A few seats away from the Wonka-obsessed Rep. Drake sat one of those "special people." Rep. Toby Overdorf, a Palm City environmental consultant, described himself as "the only gopher tortoise removal agent in the entire Legislature."
Overdorf then claimed that moving tortoises more than 100 miles away from their underground neighborhood was actually good for them because "it helps with genetics."
Scientists say moving them more than 100 miles north or south not only disrupts their existing genetic connections but also may be disastrous for tortoises that are already adapted to their current landscape and unlikely to survive a different one.
That means Overdorf was either uneducated or untruthful - a typical status for members of our Legislature.
Overdorf's comment was the point in the hearing when I rolled my eyes so hard they nearly fell out of their sockets. I also made a note to never play poker with Tucker. She somehow maintained a straight face through the legislators' most ridiculous suggestions, even the one from a self-described libertarian about moving all the Florida tortoises to Alabama.
A modest moving proposal
After watching our elected officials repeatedly pressing Tucker about ways to knock down the price in a system the government doesn't control, I think it's fair to say there's a lot of political pressure on her agency to help out those poor, pitiful developers.
That's most likely the reason Tucker's boss issued his executive order - and made things worse.
"The state developed this whole program to be market-driven," Goessling said. "But now that the price has gone up, they've changed the rules to make the prices lower."
Because I know the members of the wildlife commission are all gubernatorial appointees, I wondered if the governor applied any pressure, too. A spokeswoman for the commission named Carli Segelson told me that Sutton did, in fact, communicate with the governor's office before issuing his Nov. 18 order "as is typical for FWC issues and policies."
That's the same Gov. Ron DeSantis who boasts about being environmentally friendly while avoiding the term "climate change" and claiming anyone with concerns about global warming is doing so as a cover for imposing left-wing ideology.
According to Segelson, the agency has been issuing an average of 50 relocation permits a week. So far, none of them have been for moving gophers more than 100 miles, even though that's now allowed. But you know that's probably coming.
One of the critics of Sutton's waiver - which also now allows developers to dump tortoises on public land, making it the public's problem - is Elise Bennett, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. When I asked her how she'd fix it, she contended that the executive order "is the result of a flawed policy to begin with. Relocation is not the same as conservation."
I have to admit that, even though she's a lawyer, she's right. Preserving the places where gophers live would be better than relocating them and leaving behind the 300 or so other burrow-dwellers to die. Why can't our gopher rules encourage that?
I have a modest proposal for improving the system. We will continue to let the market set the price for moving tortoises, but with one caveat. From now on, whenever a developer moves a tortoise, someone from the developer's own company has to move too.
If they move 10 gophers, that's 10 humans who have to move, as well - at the developer's expense, of course. If the gophers have to go more than 100 miles away, so do the developer's designated employees: If it will take some of the sting out of being uprooted, the developers can declare the employees to be "special people in special little suits."
With this new move-for-a-move rule in place, I bet any developer who discovers gopher tortoises on some undeveloped property will quickly decide against building there. In fact, I bet they run the other way. They'll gallop from those gophers faster than an escaping emu.