Saturday, April 17, 2021

Letter to the Editor: Gopher Tortoises Entombed at 1851 San Marco Road

“In Florida, under Chapter 68A-27 of the Florida Administrative Code, both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state law. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the FWC before capturing and relocating tortoises.”

Entombment is a nasty way to die. On October 9, 2017, the resident gopher tortoises of 1851 San Marco Road were no match for man. Gopher tortoises living on the property were suffocated, crushed, and buried as heavy equipment removed vegetation and graded the soil.

Fact: The City of Marco Island has records of past surveys documenting the gopher tortoise habitat on 1851 San Marco Road for the past 15 years.

Fact: On October 9 & 10, 2017, vegetation debris was removed and soil graded on 1851 San Marco Road using heavy equipment without the issuance of a city permit.

Fact: Marco Island requires a permit for vegetation removal.

Fact: If a property has characteristics of a gopher tortoise habitat, a gopher tortoise survey is required prior to removal of any vegetation. By Florida law, the gopher tortoise survey must be performed by an Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) authorized gopher tortoise agent. Marco Island also has the same requirement.

The lot owner claims that a Community Service Officer (CSO) gave him verbal permission to remove the vegetation from his property as it constituted a “fire hazard.” Every swale in Marco Island constitutes a fire hazard.

Fact: A Marco Island CSO is NOT an authorized gopher tortoise agent and cannot legally give permission to clear debris from any property that is a known gopher tortoise habitat, like 1851 San Marco Road.

Fact: City and state laws protecting gopher tortoises were conveniently ignored resulting in the entombment of gopher tortoises on 1851 San Marco Road.

For cities dealing with budget cuts and natural disaster recovery, enforcement of environmental codes can get pushed down the list of priorities. Law enforcement may lack the time or the funds to properly respond to violations against protected species such as gopher tortoises, burrowing owls or migratory birds.

In Marco Island, development projects provide jobs, rich lot owners pay high taxes and they have friends in high places. Protected species, like gopher tortoises and burrowing owls, fall at the bottom of this hierarchy and tend to be collateral damage in the conflict between developers and the environment. Protected species also have fewer friends in high places. They rely on the watchful eye of average citizens for their advocacy.

Please save the gopher tortoises in Marco Island from a fast track to extinction. If you suspect a violation at a vacant lot with gopher tortoises or burrowing owls, please immediately call: FWC at: 1-888-404-FWCC (3922). See something, do something.

Under Florida Law, gopher tortoise survey must be performed by an FWC authorized gopher tortoise agent before removal of any vegetation. Marco Island also has the same requirement. Lot owner claimed he, the loader operator and Marco Island’s CSO walked the property and determined there were no gopher tortoise on 1851 San Marco Road. (Photo by Jean Hall)

4 responses to “Letter to the Editor: Gopher Tortoises Entombed at 1851 San Marco Road”

  1. Michael Gionet says:

    FACT: The code enforcement officer from the City of Marco Island walked the property extensively and there was ZERO Gopher Tortoises on the property.
    FACT: The contractor used to clean-up the property is extremely environmentally conscious and will not work on land that has Gopher Tortoises.
    FACT: That property had an extensive Phase 1 environmental study done within the past year and the property had zero environmental issues.
    FACT: The reporter received misinformation from a disgruntled former Marco Island Employee that makes money from the removal of Gopher Tortoises.

  2. Tim Mullen says:

    This is baseless and false! Sad the author conveniently left out all the facts I personally shared with her yesterday prior to her writing this. There were NO gopher tortoises on the property! A highly qualified Environmental team surveyed the property and did a full Phase 1 showing no Environmental Issues on site! The lot was cleaned up from Major Hurricane debris. Sad people with hidden agendas…

  3. Hector C. Fernandez says:

    I’m curious, how long does the process of a gopher tortoise relocation usually take?

    Perhaps the answer to that question can shed some light on the “why” of this matter.

  4. Gopher Tortoise says:

    I do not know about this particular lot, but I know for a fact that gopher tortoises exist on that part of Marco Island – and in fact this area has among the highest remaining population on Marco. Tortoises utilize multiple burrows and will also share burrows. Their home range is well over a few acres and many researchers are noting their increased activity in the area post-Irma. Tortoises spend 85% of their life in a burrow so it is very possible tortoises may use the lot even if there were none present when the county ‘walked the property’.

    Regarding some of the comments above – having a code enforcement officer walk ‘extensively’ is not substitute for a state permit and an official tortoise survey. A phase 1 Environmental Survey is conducted by an environmental consulting company to assess possible risk of contamination due to hazardous material such as biochemical, natural gas, or petroleum spills. I’m not sure why two comments above are quick to raise that a Phase 1 Study was done, because that indicates nothing about gopher tortoise activity or use. A Phase 1 survey is NOT conducted for purposes of examining wildlife. It certainly makes it seem like the commenters (property owners, perhaps?) are trying to hide something. Whether intentional or not, this lends itself to further support the information from the original editorial (the commenters are certainly giving biased information).

    With that in mind, I challenge the author to report the incident to FWC officer so that an investigation can begin. There are methods of determining the presence of gopher tortoise burrows even after the performance of non-permitted activities. The property owners should be held accountable to any damage that was done – whether that damage was just to burrows or to tortoises directly. Let’s hope FWC can investigate so we can learn who is telling the truth.

    It is sad to hear of such things happening – a little more patience and a kinder approach to removing debris could have reduced the chances of any impact.

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