Slowly, gopher tortoise moves toward endangered list

 

Designation as a “candidate species’’ won’t add any immediate new protections for the gopher tortoise, which has declined under the effects of suburban sprawl.

There are a host of reasons the gopher tortoise is disappearing from Florida and other Southeastern states – from roads and homes paving over the sandy scrublands where it lives to improperly applied herbicides, wildfire suppression programs and a poorly understood drop in egg-laying.

But there’s only one reason the turtle isn’t on the fast track to a spot on the federal list of threatened and endangered species: money or, rather, lack of it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that the turtles, which burrow in sandy dry areas that are prime targets for developers, qualify for federal protection but won’t be getting it – at least not anytime soon. Instead, they will add the tortoise to an already lengthy backlog of “candidate’’ species, meaning wildlife managers acknowledge their survival is iffy but don’t have the money or budget to do anything about it.

It’s unclear how long it will take to draw up a full recovery plan, which includes mapping out critical habitat, much of which is in Florida, particularly Central and North Florida. State wildlife managers designated the turtle as a “threatened’’ species in 2007 and, after public outcry, banned a cold-hearted practice that had allowed developers to bury more than 70,000 of them alive.

“It could be a year, it could be five. I really can’t answer that,’’ said Janet Mizzi, regional chief of species and habitat assessment for the service.

Still, the designation was a victory for environmentalists, who have long campaigned for more protection for a species that has managed to survive for about 60 million years but sharply declined under the assault of suburban sprawl in the last century – down as much as 80 percent by some biologists’ estimates.

“It’s not unexpected,’’ said Brett Papen, senior attorney for WildLaw, an environmental law firm that represented two groups, Save Our Big Scrub and Wild South. The groups first sought federal protection for the turtles in 2006.
“The biggest part is that the science supports the listing,” Papen said. “We know the service doesn’t have all the resources they need to implement it.’’

Adding a species to the federal lists of endangered species can be a highly politicized process and the slow pace has long been a concern for environmental groups. In May, the Obama administration settled a lawsuit filed by the group WildEarth Guardians over the backlog and agreed to make decisions on 251 existing candidate species within six years.
For now, the tortoise is a low-ranking priority, wildlife managers said. But it’s also a high-profile one.

Scientists consider the turtle, which can live a half century, a “keystone species’’ because its deep network of burrows help support some 360 other species, from rodents to rabbits. But some landowners consider it a nuisance because they see it as a potentially expensive hurdle to development plans.

Under a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plan adopted in 2008, builders must obtain a permit to build in gopher tortoise habitat and agree to relocate any found. As an incentive, the state will reduce permit costs if developers place them in high-quality habitat or set aside other areas for turtle use. It’s illegal to kill or move the tortoises or eggs without a state permit.

Federal wildlife managers stressed that a “candidate’’ designation alone won’t add any new regulations – though formal status potentially could.

“There will be no land-use change for anyone as a result of this announcement,’’ said Cynthia Dohner, the service’s southeast regional director.

It does allow the agency to free up federal matching grant money to encourage landowners or communities to set aside healthy turtle grounds. With some 88 percent of their remaining habitat in private hands, getting cooperation from landowners will be key to any recovery plan, said Dave Hankla, field supervisor for the service’s Jacksonville office.
A smaller western population of the tortoises in sections of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi is already designated as threatened. There are nearly 1,400 plants, animals and even two Florida Keys corals already on the federal list. Wildlife managers said adding additional species costs from $150,000 to $300,000 each.

 

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