Thanks to the efforts of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Nokuse Plantation, 227 endangered gopher tortoises have a new lease on life.
The threatened tortoises — 28 of which were merely eggs — were recently saved from a development site in Apopka, Fla., right outside the Orlando area, and brought to Nokuse Plantation in Walton County.
"The gopher tortoise is a threatened species, and this is a victory for the species and for the humane treatment of all wild animals threatened by urban development," said Dave Pauli, senior director of The Humane Society’s Wildlife Innovations and Response Team.
The western gopher tortoise population — spanning from the Tombigbee and Mobile Rivers in Alabama to southeastern Louisiana — has been listed as a federally threatened species since 1987. The state of Florida listed the gopher tortoise as a threatened species in 2007 and that summer an effort was made to save tortoises inhabiting construction sites by ending the Incidental Take permit, which resulted in gopher tortoises being buried alive on development sites. Existing permit holders were grandfathered in however. As developments were put on hold during the housing market crash, thousands of gopher tortoises are still living on construction sites with grandfathered permits.
Although developers are not required by law to relocate tortoises, in this particular case, they did. D.R. Horton and Orlando-based Bio-Tech Consulting took the needed steps to ensure a safe removal from the site. D.R. Horton even donated the cost of the backhoe operations.
The process of removing tortoises from a site is labor intensive, Pauli explained.
"It's pretty impressive," he said. "Gopher tortoises tend to be a solitary animal, so there is one tortoise per borough. Once a site is identified, our team does an assessment. The excavation can take several hours. There's an emphasis on safety for the tortoise, we move a lot of earth to get to them. Once you finally get to the tortoise, it's like Christmas."
In situations where endangered wildlife is being removed from one location, it's also tough to find a permanent home that is safe, explained Pauli. That's where Nokuse Plantation comes in.
"Nokuse Plantation is uniquely qualified for the tortoise survivors," Pauli said. "The beauty in this is that this is a science-based operation. They provide an amazing alternative for the tortoises."
Located between Freeport and Bruce, the Nokuse Plantation, which includes the Biophilia Center, is a 51,000-acre private preserve owned by M.C. Davis since 2000. According to the website, the purpose of the land is to provide wildlife preserve and habitat linkage area between state and federal lands in an effort to support historic biodiversity.
Acclimating tortoises to their new location is a process, said Matthew Aresco, conservation director at Nokuse.
"We find isolated, well-drained areas with plenty of grasses for them to eat," he explained. "To get them accustomed, we put up a large fence enclosure and leave it up for a year so that they'll dig their burrows."
In the past six years, the Nokuse Plantation has worked with the Humane Society to help relocate more than 4,000 tortoises. With their wealth of land, they'll be able to accommodate far more wildlife.
"We haven't even used 1 percent of the land available," Aresco said.
In an effort to save even more gopher tortoises Nokuse Plantation is proactively seeking more development sites that may be endangering the tortoises.
"Before the end of the Incidental Take Permit, developers could pay money to the state and do whatever they wanted," Aresco said. "Just based on records, an estimate of 100,000 tortoises have been killed before from 1991-2007 when the permits were allowed. People used to eat them up until the late 1980s."
"We have a list of all of those sites that could be endangering the tortoises, throughout Orlando, Jacksonville and around Tampa," he added.
When it comes to defending those who cannot defend themselves, anyone can make an impact.
"One or two people can make a difference for urban species," Pauli said. "For any situation there's probably a more humane alternative, you just have to look for it."