New FWC EO helps ensure gopher tortoises find new homes
Gopher tortoise conservation is a priority for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and staff are taking steps to ensure humane and responsible relocations take place as development increases throughout the state.
FWC recently issued Executive Order (EO 21-27) authorizing temporary deviations from the Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines (Guidelines). These temporary changes address the current high demand for placements at gopher tortoise recipient sites. The Executive Order, which is now in effect, does not provide any blanket authorizations nor does it reduce or eliminate the need for permitting. The EO provides staff the ability to deviate from the Guidelines under the circumstances outlined in the EO. All approved alternatives under the EO will be temporarily authorized by FWC as a permit condition. Any activities occurring without a permit from FWC that impact tortoises or their burrows may be a violation of state law.
Permitting for the relocation of gopher tortoises from development sites is one of many conservation tools used to achieve the objectives of the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan. The suite of conservation actions provided in the Management Plan have worked successfully to minimize the loss of tortoises, increase and improve tortoise habitat, restore depleted populations, and maintain the gopher tortoise’s function as a keystone species. The Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines are a key component of the Management Plan and govern the relocation of tortoises from lands slated for development or other projects that may impact tortoises or their burrows.
The permitted relocation of all gopher tortoises from development sites has been required since 2008, when the gopher tortoise was listed as state-Threatened. Tortoises are often relocated to permitted gopher tortoise recipient sites which provide security for the gopher tortoise and its habitat. To date, 45 Long-term Protected Recipient Sites conserving more than 75,000 acres of habitat have been placed under a perpetual conservation easement and permitted to receive gopher tortoises.
Permitting for development sites has increased significantly over the past few years, increasing the demand for recipient site capacity. Nearly 3,000 gopher tortoise relocation permits have been issued in 2021 alone, representing about 20% of all permits issued since 2008. The significant increase in permitting throughout the state has led to recipient site managers often being unable to accommodate the increased demand for relocation, leading to shortages in available reservations and increased permitting costs.
The Executive Order supports implementation of the Guidelines to protect the health and safety of tortoises while ensuring long-term success of the program. The EO is in place for 90 days, beginning on November 18th. The need to extend the Order, and the temporary provisions provided therein, will be evaluated towards the end of this 90-day period. All permit applications and associated projects will be reviewed individually and any deviations from the Guidelines will be considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on the project’s specifications, the site-specific need, and the availability of gopher tortoise reservations or recipient site capacity at that time.
The EO temporarily reduces mitigation fees for relocation to recipient sites that have enforceable protections, but which may not be under perpetual conservation easement. The EO also extends the ability to move tortoises to recipient sites more than 100 miles north or south of their original location. This option was already available in the Guidelines under certain circumstances. The EO makes this option more broadly available. Finally, the EO authorizes staff to determine if other temporary relocation options are warranted for individual project applications. The EO does not provide blanket authorizations, nor does it waive existing rules.
The Executive Order is a proactive approach to reducing potential violations of state law. Concerns over delays in obtaining recipient site reservations may increase the potential for project activities to occur without a permit. The deviations authorized by the EO provide flexibility within the Guidelines to ensure gopher tortoises are safely and humanely relocated out of harm’s way when there is no practical option within the current guidelines, given the availability of reservations or site capacity.
For more information about gopher tortoises, visit MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise.