The Daytona Beach News-Journal is carrying the following story.
56 Gopher tortoises to get new digs
Volusia plans to improve food, habitat for critters
By DINAH VOYLES PULVER, Environment Writer
It's part of a long-term, statewide plan by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to create better places for the tortoises -- and related species that share their homes. The wildlife commission is doling out a limited amount of cash each year to local agencies willing to do land restoration.
The Volusia project will take place in the sprawling Heart Island Conservation Area, 14, 246 acres east of Barberville on either side of State Road 40. The St. Johns River Water Management District plans to perform the work on 227 acres of a parcel it owns jointly with Volusia County.
Before acquisition, the land was used for trophy game hunting, and oaks were planted to produce acorns, said Ed Garland, a district spokesman.
The district plans to put in fire lanes to burn the land with prescribed fire on a regular basis and will apply herbicide in the spring to treat the oaks that create too much shade, Garland said.
The Volusia County Council approved the plan last week.
Burning and reducing the oaks will create more sandy areas and increase food available for the tortoises, said Deborah Burr, gopher tortoise plan coordinator for the wildlife commission. A survey last fall found an estimated two adult tortoises per acre on the land.
Like many Florida plants and animals, tortoises need fire to prevent undergrowth from getting so thick that it's difficult for them to crawl, find food and build burrows.
"Fire plays a huge role in their life cycle," Burr said, "and is a huge part of the plan to sustain the species."
Experts say projects that improve tortoise habitat also benefit as many as 300 additional species of animals and insects that share tortoise burrows.
The wildlife commission adopted a tortoise management plan in 2007, listing goals for protection and restoring habitat. Burr said the lack of good quality habitat is one reason why tortoises declined statewide.
The tortoises were used by old-timers for food before the state banned their harvest in 1988. Their status on the state's protected species list was upgraded to threatened in 2006.
In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the tortoise might warrant placement on the federal protected species list, but a spokesman for the service said Wednesday the issue is still under review.
The statewide population was estimated at about 750,000 in 2007, when the wildlife commission said it would no longer allow tortoises to be buried alive during construction and would instead require them to be relocated.
However, hundreds of permits already had been issued for tortoise destruction and many are still outstanding.
The wildlife commission estimated as many as 94,000 tortoises may have been buried on construction sites between 1991 and 2007. Developers with the old permits can choose to voluntarily relocate gopher tortoises, and wildlife commission officials have said they encourage the permit holders to relocate.
The money for the Heart Island restoration, $13,168, will come from cash paid by developers as mitigation for destroying gopher tortoise burrows.
This year, the wildlife commission is spending about $135,000 on 12 projects, Burr said. Last year, it distributed about $119,000.
The wildlife commission collects proposals from local governments and then prioritizes them based on the cost per acre price of the work, Burr said.
The wildlife commission is looking for the "biggest bang for its buck," she said. "We're looking for management of the most amount of land for the least amount of money possible."