For Immediate Release, November 19, 2021

Contact:

Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950, ebennett@biologicaldiversity.org
George Heinrich, Florida Turtle Conservation Trust, (727) 599-1843, george@heinrichecologicalservices.com

Florida Order Weakens Protections for Imperiled Gopher Tortoise

Gopher Tortoise at Greater Risk From Widespread Urban Sprawl

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued an executive order that weakens protections for tortoises displaced from development sites around the state and authorizes indefinite “temporary relocation” measures. The order comes as uncontrolled urban sprawl has caused a shortage of relocation sites for the rare and beloved tortoise.

“Gopher tortoises are caught in a habitat loss crisis, yet the commission is suggesting what amounts to a temporary storage solution,” said Elise Bennett, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This move is deeply disappointing and dangerous to these imperiled animals, but it’s also no surprise. For years the state has enabled sprawl development by simply moving tortoises out of the way. Now there’s nowhere left to put them.”

The order, issued by commission executive director Eric Sutton, broadly waives a rule that prohibits the relocation of tortoises more than 100 miles north or south of a given development site. The “100-mile rule” exists to ensure tortoise populations are relocated to areas that support long-term population viability and genetic integrity.

Because urban sprawl in peninsular Florida is consuming much of the tortoise’s remaining habitat, waiver of the 100-mile rule will likely direct tortoises from the species’ core range to peripheral areas in the Florida panhandle, where populations may struggle to survive.

"We are shocked by the recent executive order, which diminishes the conservation outlook for tortoises,” said George L. Heinrich, executive director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. “We have long urged the commission to be more proactive with their efforts to conserve imperiled tortoise and freshwater turtle species. The fact that our state wildlife agency has allowed it to get to this point is shameful. They simply must do better."

The order also authorizes wildlife officials to approve several “temporary relocation” options for developers to proceed with construction. This enables “temporary on-site relocation” by holding tortoises in pens on-site, waives a 72-hour maximum “holding time” for tortoises, and allows for “temporary offsite relocation” to public lands.

The order provides no new maximum holding time for tortoises and no restrictions on how long temporary relocation may last. This may subject tortoises to high stress and risks spreading disease.

“It’s particularly egregious that the commission would support using our public lands as temporary dumping grounds for these beleaguered animals. This short-sighted order shifts conservation responsibility from private developers, who are forcing these tortoises out of their homes, to the public,” said Bennett.

The order also permits wildlife officials to deviate from survey timelines intended to ensure that tortoises are accurately accounted for and relocated. The order will remain in force for 90 days until amended or replaced by another order.

The gopher tortoise relocation program is on the agenda for the commission’s Dec. 15 meeting. The commission is accepting public comment in writing by Dec.10 and orally at the meeting.

Background

In 2007, in response to growing urban sprawl and rules that allowed developers to legally kill, harm and entomb gopher tortoises in their burrows, Florida passed laws requiring the permitted relocation of tortoises to “recipient sites.”

Critics of the rule have warned that it would lead to a net loss of habitat for the species, resulting in fewer and fewer places for the species to live.

In recent years, a shortage of recipient sites has led to a conservation crisis for the tortoise and staggering relocation fees for developers, spurring concern that developers may be incentivized to skirt the permitting process altogether. Investigations have also revealed poorly managed recipient sites, with sick and dying tortoises and mismanaged habitat.

State wildlife officials had been working with tortoise experts through the Gopher Tortoise Technical Advisory Group to thoughtfully resolve these issues before the commission abruptly released the executive order.

RSFlorida_Gopher_Tortoise_Craig ONeal_Wikicommons.jpg
Gopher tortoise photo courtesy Craig O'Neal, Wikimedia Commons. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.