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.
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."