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Where are the tortoises? Lee County approves space to relocate nearly 1,000 gopher tortoises

Pamela Jones-Morton, PhD

Southwest Florida is a hotspot for new construction. In Fort Myers alone there are more than 89 development projects, according to the City of Fort Myers development report.

But before development happens, companies have to remove gopher tortoises to relocation sites to comply with Florida law. And Lee County is running out of room for the reptiles.

To remedy this Lee County has approved just over $100,000 to fund a new gopher tortoise relocation site at Bob Janes Preserve in the northeast part of Lee.

This recipient site will provide space for at least 980 tortoises. According to Lee County documents, this saves the county thousands of dollars.

If commissioners had not approved the money, documents said county projects would need to spend up to $9,000 each to relocate the tortoises to private, long-term sites. And Lee County said it believes that price will increase. Money for the new relocation site will translate to a cost of about $102 for each tortoise.

Construction in the county would also be delayed if the new recipient site had not been approved.

“The proposed Gopher Tortoise Recipient Site at Bob Janes Preserve will be used to relocate gopher tortoises impacted by Lee County Government public-sector projects when avoidance or onsite relocation is not possible,” Betsy Clayton, Lee County public information officer, said.

This site is expected to have availability for the tortoises for up to 20 years, according to Clayton.

“Gopher tortoises impacted during development of private development projects are being relocated outside Lee County,” she said.

Funds to maintain the project will come from the Lee County Environmental Mitigation Fund. Maintenance will include yearly exotic vegetation maintenance, prescribed burns and gopher tortoise and vegetation monitoring.

Gopher tortoises are listed as a threatened species in the state of Florida, and they help other native populations. The tortoises burrow in the ground and share their burrows with more than 350 other species.

According to the the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, gopher tortoise recipient sites are in high demand.

Despite state-mandated precautions to protect this keystone species, the gopher tortoise population is declining.

FWC said the biggest threat to gopher tortoises is habitat loss through destruction, fragmentation and degradation. This comes mostly from urbanization and development.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at katiefogarty22@gmail.com