Carissa Kent was working at the Seminole County Sheriff's Office in 2006 when she heard the news: While building a new outlet in Lake Park, Walmart had destroyed the homes of dozens of gopher tortoises, a threatened species that lives in burrows deep underground. Worst of all, the megacompany had done so legally. The State of Florida simply required Walmart to pay only $11,409 in extra costs to level the animals' habitat.
"I couldn't sleep for several days," Kent says. "I kept having this vision of a gopher tortoise being buried alive and trying to climb its way out... Because of their slow metabolisms, it can take gopher tortoises up to 12 months to die."
So Kent quit her job and and became a diehard activist for gopher tortoises. She works to help developers skirt what she and other environmentalists say is a flawed state system that encourages the tortoises to be killed in exchange for small fines. Over the past 12 years, the 40-year-old tortoise rescuer from Oviedo has saved and relocated nearly 6,000 tortoises, including at least 200 in South Florida.
Generally, gopher tortoises live in coastal dune strands and longleaf pine forests. Because of their ten-foot-deep, 48-foot-long burrows, the animals are known as a "keystone species," providing refuge to more than 360 other creatures, including indigo snakes, gopher frogs, cottonmouth snakes, Florida scrub-jay birds, and burrowing owls. Without underground shelter, many of these animals would otherwise be threatened by bad weather, forest fires, and above-ground predators such as armadillos, raccoons, foxes, skunks, and alligators.
In spite of the gopher tortoise's ecological importance, in the late '80s, developers began building apartment complexes and shopping malls in the tortoises' sandy, dry-soil flatlands. In 1991, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) began issuing "incidental take permits" (ITP) to those developers, allowing them to legally kill gopher tortoises on their properties.
To purchase a permit, developers had to hire environmental consultants to survey at least 15 percent of their property, count the number of gopher tortoises there, and then extrapolate the total number over the entire plot. The final number would then be factored into the permit's cost.
But environmentalists such as Kent have long protested that process. Developers and consultants could easily cherry-pick which section of the property was surveyed, they say. And the extra costs of killing tortoises was usually tiny in the grand scheme of a project — based on her data, permit-holders paid an average of $27,000 to the FWC for their permits, with the largest payment maxing out at $1,023,387.
But Deborah Burr, the FWC's gopher tortoise program coordinator, says the ITP program helped the state create new habitat for surviving tortoises.
"All the money that was collected from issuing permits was used to purchase and acquire public land for gopher tortoise habitat conservation," she says.
Within 14 years, the state brought in $47 million in permit fees and purchased 22,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat. But at least 74,000 tortoises were killed in the process.
Protests against the ITP process heated up in 2006 after news broke of Walmart's legal destruction of the creatures. Even worse, at that time, the FWC had prohibited gopher tortoises from being moved outside of their original property boundaries.
"It was crazy," Kent says. "People could run over tortoises and kill them, but we would get arrested for relocating them."
Determined to challenge the absurd restriction, Kent submitted a proposal to the FWC asking for a humane relocation amendment. Soon enough, it was approved. Within her first year of activism, Kent saved dozens of tortoises.
Despite her efforts, in 2007, the state upgraded the gopher tortoise's status on the endangered species list to "threatened." Immediately, the FWC was met with a massive outcry from concerned citizens and environmental groups. Forced to reconsider, the FWC adopted a proposal to end the controversial ITP program and replace it with conservation-minded permits that forced property owners to relocate gopher tortoises. However, all ITPs that had been secured before July 31, 2007, were grandfathered in.
In all, the state issued 3,182 ITPs, allowing nearly 104,000 gopher tortoises across Florida to be bulldozed and buried alive. Today there are 21 sites with active ITPs across Broward and Palm Beach Counties where 525 registered gopher tortoises live.
Unfortunately, with the expenses for relocation ranging from $200 to $1,200 per tortoise, developers with valid ITPs often find little financial incentive to move tortoises off their properties. Instead, many continue opting for incidental takes.
To Sarah Gledhill, planning director at the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), this poses a particular problem because ITP permit-holders were never required to resurvey their land to confirm whether the number of gopher tortoises had changed over the years.
"Gopher tortoises don't reach sexual maturity until they're about 10 years old, so in the last two decades, they've been breeding," Gledhill says. "As a result, there may be many more tortoises on [ITP sites] than the developers originally thought."
Just last year, Kent visited a site that was supposed to have 26 gopher tortoises. By the end of the excavation, she had rescued 176.
Because of this issue, Kent has partnered with Gledhill and the FWF to scout out ITP permit-holders and offer relocation services free of charge. Gledhill says she's seen progress over the past few years.
"With the recession, we saw a lot of permits change hands," she says. "Many new landowners didn't want the bad PR of burying gopher tortoises alive, so they've been doing relocations just like the people with conservation permits."
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Indeed, Kent says many developers are happy to work with environmentalists to safely remove the tortoises from their land.
"We want to work with developers, not shame them," Kent says. "There's no protest. It's very collaborative."
Last September, Kent's team traveled to Lee County to excavate tortoises from a Dodge dealership owner's empty plot. "He called us," she says. "He saw these tortoises on his land and knew he could do whatever he wanted with them, but he thought, Hey, that's not cool."
Even after thousands of rescues, Kent says she won't stop while new projects still threaten tortoise habitats.