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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)

Several communities held gopher tortoise races. The hungry ate them during the Depression, when they were dubbed "Hoover chickens," and, until the practice was banned in the late 1980s, an Okaloosa County community held an annual tortoise cookout. Noted Florida novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings featured a recipe for gopher tortoise stew in a cookbook she published, biologists said.

"To people in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's time, it was meat," said Joan Berish, a state biologist who monitored the tortoise harvest until it was stopped in 1988. "Lots of people lived off of it. There was a feeling that gopher meat was good for you."

As developers have cut into tortoise habitat, however, the once-plentiful species has dwindled.

In a report last summer, a panel of state wildlife experts estimated that the population of gopher tortoises in Florida has declined by more than half in the past 60 to 90 years.

The legalized entombment of gopher tortoises dates back to 1991, when the state began issuing, for a fee, the incidental-take permits to developers.

The idea behind the permits, according to state officials, was that money from the permitting process would be used to purchase habitat elsewhere. The permits did bring in millions, allowing the wildlife commission to buy land or development rights on 26,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat statewide, state officials said.

"A lot of tortoises did die," Hill said. "Those that did die, though, didn't die entirely in vain."

The permitting practice seems to have been doomed once the public learned of its existence through the efforts of biologist Aresco, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups. The incidental-take permits issued for a Wal-Mart in Lake Park and to the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, which reportedly got a state permit to kill more than 400 gopher tortoises, were reported in local newspapers. Public outrage followed.

"It was just really consistent pressure from the public once they figured out what was going on," said Jennifer A. Hobgood, regional coordinator for the Southeast office of the Humane Society of the United States. "People were horrified."

Despite the gopher tortoise's new prominence, however, the creature's resilience against development in one of the nation's fastest-growing states is uncertain.

The conservation plan approved last month by the state takes a two-pronged approach to preserving the species.

The plan would set aside an additional 615,000 acres, or more than 950 square miles, for gopher tortoises over the next 15 years. At the same time, it aims to move more than 200,000 of the animals out of harm's way.

"I do think the plan will work if the state follows through on its commitment to preserve more habitat," Aresco said. "But the money is going to have to come from somewhere. We need someplace to put all these gopher tortoises."

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