Although gopher tortoises have persisted for millions of years, they now face a barrage of threats from habitat loss and developers with permits that allow the reptiles to be buried alive.
From 1991 to 2007, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued By-Take Permits (ITPs) allowing landowners to pay a fee that would allow them to legally “take” turtles. Although the developers were able to relocate the turtles on site, many were buried alive in their burrows under houses or roads, forced to die a slow and painful death.
Although new permits are not issued by the FWC, existing ITPs are grandfathered and can be transferred when the land changes hands.
Carissa Kent, a Tampa native who has spent years living in central Florida, first heard about ITPs when she read an article from the Humane Society detailing a Deltona Walmart project that was burying the creatures. Although Kent had a career in the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and longed to work for the FBI, it was a turning point that would change his life.
“When a house, a sidewalk or an infrastructure is placed on it, they are blocked. There’s someone’s living room above their burrow, and they come down and slowly suffer and die,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep for about four days and decided to change careers.”
With no background in biology or conservation, Kent, then 28, spent countless hours researching and reaching out to potential allies, often being “blocked” by people who didn’t give her a hand. the time of day. Then she tracked down Dr. Jennifer Hobgood, former director of the Humane Society in Florida, and Dr. Matt Aresco, director of Nokuse Plantation in the Florida Panhandle.
“Carissa and I met in 2006. She reached out to us, it was the very first project she was working on,” Aresco said. “We have agreed to accept the turtles from this project. … We have about 27,000 acres of good gopher tortoise habitat.
The following spring, thanks to the hard work of Kent and his team, around 700 turtles found new homes in the reserve.
The idea behind FWC’s bycatch permit program for gopher tortoises was that money earned from ITPs would be used to offset habitat loss through new conservation lands.
Permits were issued based on the area of turtle habitat affected. For example, in 2004, Lake Nona Land Co. paid $104,114 for an ITP on a 206-acre site that contained 62 acres of gopher tortoise habitat, allowing them to “catch” about 205 reptiles.
Other permits have been issued to Central Florida projects operated by Disney, Orange County Public Schools, Florida Department of Transportation, Valencia Community College, Target, Walmart and Avalon Park.
But Aresco said only a fraction of the turtle habitat has been purchased to compensate for the massive losses.
“The sad thing is that [ITP] the money was taken by the Legislative Assembly and put into general revenue instead of being used for its intended purpose,” he said.
Using data from public records applications, Aresco determined that nearly $80 million had been raised through the 15-year bycatch permit program.
“From 1991 to 2007, the estimate was 170,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat loss under these permits,” he said. “They only purchased about 16,000 acres of land and only about 6,500 acres of actual gopher tortoise habitat. This is only about 4% of what was lost in habitat during this time.
In his research of over 3,000 issued ITPs, Aresco estimated that over 100,000 gopher tortoise lives could have been lost.
When Kent and Aresco joined forces to begin moving gopher turtles from ITP sites, there was a sense of urgency to their work, but funding and support were initially hard to come by.
After six years of service with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office investigating child abuse, Kent was invested and left to cash in her retirement — in the name of saving these reptiles. In 2006, she founded Saving Florida’s Gopher Tortoises and partners like Hobgood helped find grants for funding.
“I ended up becoming a process server working 40-60 hours a week and doing the gopher turtle stuff on the side,” she said. “It was daunting at 28 to have a busy job and then kick this off.”
As Kent and his team worked diligently to move the turtles to Nokuse Plantation, Aresco found environmental allies.
“They thought they were doing a good thing collecting that money to buy habitat with,” he said. “It turns out the program didn’t work very well and little habitat was purchased for the incredible loss in turtle numbers – even habitat loss compensation.”
In early 2005, Kevin Spear, a longtime Orlando Sentinel environmental reporter, wrote an article with the headline, “Developers’ Legal Gopher Turtle Killings Infuriate Enemies”, a story Aresco credits as a turning point. in the public outcry against the ITPs. In the years that followed, picketing, behind-the-scenes work and a March 2007 visit to Governor Charlie Crist helped win the day for environmental activists.
Yet these same environmentalists had to take into account that the existing permits would still be valid.
“People are confused because they think that when the species was listed in 2007 and the permits stopped being issued, the developers couldn’t use them anymore. But the permits were protected so they could,” Kent said.
She and Hobgood first worked with FWC to create an amendment to the ITPs that would allow for offsite relocation. Although the officials who once ran the ITP program are no longer with the agency, FWC is still dealing with the legacy of those permits.
“The FWC recognizes that the ITPs do not expire and the permit authorizes the taking of gopher tortoises in development-related activities at the site,” said Carli Segelson, director of public information at the Division of Habitat and of FWC Species Conservation, in an email. “FWC has also implemented projects to conduct targeted outreach activities regarding humane resettlement efforts to licensees with by-catch permits.”
Kent and his team have been able to relocate or rehabilitate nearly 15,000 turtles through years of effort.
“With reptiles, you have to do extra work to get people on board with conservation. They’re not cute and cuddly, and they’re not adorable,” she said. easy road, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Each week, Kent enlists partners such as Longwood-based Ecological Consulting Solutions Inc., which will use backhoes or excavators to dig burrows at ITP sites up to 30 feet deep.
Since 2017, the Saving Florida’s Gopher Tortoises Project has received funding from the Department of Defense to relocate the turtles to Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle. Jeremy Preston, an endangered species biologist on the base, said these turtles help the Air Force meet its conservation goals.
“We’re not just thinking of an individual turtle, but what’s really valuable is a population of animals that manage to reproduce, lay eggs and survive hatchlings,” he said. he declares. “The Air Force benefits from restoring viable populations of this particular species to our landscape.”
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However, future funding is unclear and Kent is fundraising on GoFundMe help ensure the sustainability of this project. For years she worked with Girls Adventures in the Swamp in Central Florida because they can accept donations for its mission and help with turtle rehabilitation.
Additionally, some developers are now more willing to pay for relocation services, even if they are legally allowed to “take” turtles.
“It’s about $200 to $300 per turtle for us. It’s not what it costs to regularly relocate, but we don’t make any profit beyond what it takes to break even and pay hourly,” Kent said. “We get an average of 800 to 1,000 turtles a year… That’s well over $200,000 to do that.”
Conservationists know they must continue to fight to save the gopher turtles still out there on these licensed plots.
The shell of the gopher tortoise “protects it from just about anything in nature. Yet it is so vulnerable to development, roads and human disturbance,” Aresco said. “We are doing what we can to save the species from decline, and that is what we will continue to do.”
To learn more about this project, visit gofundme.com/f/rescue-tortoises-from-being-killed, swampgirladventures.org or contact Carissa Kent at [email protected] or 407-529-5006.