June 14, 2007

Fla. OKs Moratorium for Gopher Tortoises

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Developers will no longer be allowed to bury gopher tortoises alive during construction under a moratorium approved Wednesday by state wildlife commissioners.

Also Wednesday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioners voted to proceed with upgrading the manatee's status from endangered to threatened, meaning scientists believe the species has rebounded from the brink of extinction. The move will not be finalized until the commission's September meeting, at the earliest.

Endangered status means an animal is at immediate risk of extinction. Threatened denotes a species could become endangered in the future if protections are not maintained.

"We've run hundreds of computer models and none of them indicate that manatees would go extinct within 100 years," said commission spokesman Henry Cabbage.

Under current gopher tortoise rules, developers are allowed to seek permits to bury them alive rather than relocate them during construction projects. About 70,000 gopher tortoises have been buried in the past 14 years under the state permitting system.

The tortoises, which can live for weeks before suffocating after entombment, burrow in sandy, dry areas such as dunes and have survived for 60 million years. Biologists estimate their numbers have dropped by up to 80 percent in the last century due to coastal development.

The commission also voted Wednesday during its meeting in Melbourne to add another level of protection for the tortoise, upgrading its status from species of special concern to threatened. However, the status change won't take effect for at least several more months while a new management plan is being developed that aims to limit future burials or eliminate them altogether.

It remains illegal to take, possess, transport or sell gopher tortoises or their eggs, except by obtaining a state permit. The moratorium on burying gopher tortoises will go into effect July 30.

The Florida Home Builders Association has said it supports measures to protect the tortoise, regardless of additional relocation costs.

Critics of the proposed status change for manatees complained that it's too soon to remove any protections.

"Threats to the manatee are getting worse, not better," said Patrick Rose of the Save the Manatee Club. "Virtually every model is suggesting that we could be losing up to half the manatees in the next 30 to 40 years."

Cabbage countered that populations may decrease "but it's not on the brink of extinction" and therefore doesn't meet the criteria to be deemed endangered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April also recommended changing the manatee's federal status from endangered to threatened.

An annual census of manatees recorded 2,812 of the animals in Florida waters this year. In 1991 - the survey's first year - 1,267 manatees were found in the state.

Meanwhile, wildlife commissioners told scientists to continue with a review of whether the alligator should remain on the state's list of imperiled species. A potential change in classification from species of special concern would mean, among other things, reduced restrictions on alligator hunting and possibly allowing for more kills over an extended period of time.

Currently, alligators can only be hunted during an 11-week season.

Commissioners rejected a proposal to allow homeowners to kill problem alligators less than 4 feet long on their property, opting to stick with the current policy that calls for state licensed trappers to remove the reptiles.

Alligators were once nearly hunted to extinction. They were listed as a federally endangered species in 1967 and hunting was outlawed.

Public licensed hunting didn't begin in Florida until 1988, a year after the alligator was removed from the endangered species list because its population had rebounded. Biologists estimate there are now up to 2 million alligators in Florida.