Florida lawmakers look at more sites for gopher tortoises

Bill backed by St. Augustine senator sent to full Senate this week

Gopher Tortoise

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Land management agencies would have to consider finding areas suitable for gopher tortoises that get pushed from their homes by development, under a measure sent to the full Senate on Thursday.

The Appropriations Committee backed a bill (SB 494) by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, that includes directing land management agencies to consider creating gopher tortoise “recipient” sites on state lands that are larger than 40 contiguous acres.

“As we look at the state growing and growing, there continues to be shrinking mitigation banks for gopher tortoises,” Hutson said Jan. 12 as he added the gopher-tortoise issue to the bill during a meeting of the Agriculture, Environment, and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee.

“So, what this would do is obligate land managing agencies, in consultation with the FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) to consider lands greater than 40 contiguous acres as potential gopher tortoise recipient sites, thus allowing for more free market for the removal and relocation of different tortoises,” Hutson continued.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Nov. 18 issued an order that allows recipient sites for gopher tortoises to be more than 100 miles from where the animals initially dug their burrows.

The 100-mile limit was designed as part of a 2008 program to prevent tortoises from being shifted into different climates.

The order was issued in November because of a surge in construction and limits on immediately available recipient sites.

Under Hutson’s proposal, land management agencies would have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on issues such as the feasibility of using a portion of sites for gopher tortoise relocations.

With gopher tortoises listed as threatened, landowners are required to obtain permits from the commission before tortoises are captured and relocated. Tortoises and their burrows provide shelter for at least 360 other animal species.

It is illegal to harm, kill, harass, feed or disrupt the behavior of gopher tortoises. Developing land within protected areas of gopher tortoises or their burrows could result in third-degree felony charges.

Hutson initially included additional fines for people who injure or kill gopher tortoises or destroy burrows but removed the proposal because, “we’ve heard from different stakeholders and other members about increasing penalties being a potential problem.”

In December, members of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission directed staff staff to review the various penalties for people who cover up gopher tortoise nests or try to move the reptiles without permission.

“A bad actor can say, ‘Hey, the cost of doing business you know, it’s gonna be blah, blah blah,’ right, and then pay the fine,” commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said during a Dec. 16 meeting.

More than 2,500 permits were issued in 2021 for more than 17,000 tortoises to be relocated, with costs of moving tortoises increasing from between $1,000 and $2,000 per tortoise to $6,000. Each relocation site must be on land set aside from future development and for a maximum of two tortoises per acre.

In 2020, more than 10,000 tortoises were relocated, and the number of permits has steadily increased, according to the commission.

The bulk of Hutson’s bill focuses on boating safety issues and the management of derelict vessels. The bill also would prohibit local governments from creating public swimming areas in or within 100 feet of marked channels in the Intracoastal Waterway.

About the Author:

Jim is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics.