Lowly Species Gets Some Help Against Entombment in Florida

Thousands of Florida's gopher tortoises, recently reclassified as threatened, have been buried alive as development paved over their burrows, a practice now banned in the state after outrage over the deaths. (By Joy M. Hill -- Courtesy Of The Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

MIAMI -- Gopher tortoises are made for digging burrows. Their front feet are shovel-like, their back limbs elephantine and perfect for bracing. Fatally, however, they cannot pierce asphalt and concrete.

Over the past 16 years, thousands of the animals have essentially been buried alive by Florida developers who were given permits under a little-noticed state program to build on top of the creatures' subterranean homes.

Once the tortoises were trapped in the process known as "entombment," their slow metabolism meant it might take weeks or months before they died of thirst or starvation.

"Trying to dig out, day after day, but not being able to, it's got to be pretty horrible," said Matthew J. Aresco, a biologist at a 50,000-acre conservation area in Florida who helped bring the tortoises' cause to light. "It's truly appalling."

Now Florida is moving toward a ban on the practice, though whether the state is moving urgently enough to help the species is a matter of debate.

The state no longer issues permits allowing entombment, and developers are now required to relocate gopher tortoises to areas where they might thrive. As part of a plan adopted last month, the state aims to buy or protect thousands of acres of habitat.

But scores of permits issued before July 30 for what was known as "incidental take" are being honored, essentially allowing entombment of gopher tortoises to continue. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials could not say how many of those permits might still be used. In the two months before the cutoff date, more than 90 such permits were issued, officials said.

Thousands more gopher tortoises could be entombed, Aresco said, because of the previously issued permits.

"I don't think anyone wanted to entomb tortoises," said Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the conservation commission. "But we can't stop development, and this was the best option at the time."

Gopher tortoises are found elsewhere in the Southeastern United States, but Florida has the largest portion of their range, with an estimated 750,000 in the state. Florida recently reclassified the species as "threatened."

Their tan, oblong shells grow to about 10 or 11 inches, and the animals are known for digging tunnels, sometimes as deep as 10 feet, for protection.

For years, the gentle, slow-moving tortoises have been a fixture of old Florida culture.

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