FORT LAUDERDALE — After being sharply criticized for allowing developers to bury gopher tortoises alive, the state wildlife commission has released a plan intended to virtually eliminate the practice and halt the species' decline.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission distributed a draft of a management plan that would require developers to pay to relocate the tortoises to vacant habitat, rather than engage in the current practice of obtaining a permit to kill them by paying to protect habitat elsewhere.
Since 1991, the state has issued permits to kill more than 74,000 tortoises in the course of construction by burying or crushing. Because of their slow metabolism, the buried animals may not die for months.
The management plan released Friday calls for ending the practice except in extraordinary circumstances, but sets no deadlines -- a point that worried wildlife advocates who wanted the killings halted immediately. The plan calls for the protection of 615,000 additional acres of habitat by 2022, for a total of nearly 2 million acres of public and private land managed to preserve tortoises.
The dinner-plate-sized reptiles use shovel-like forelimbs to dig burrows, which provide homes for dozens of other species, including gopher frogs, indigo snakes and Florida pine snakes.
"The idea is to get more habitat protected, get more of the animals salvaged off the sites and moved to land that is suitable," said Rick McCann, a commission biologist. "It's a good step forward for the tortoise."
But the new permit process won't go into effect until next year, assuming the commission approves it as expected in September. McCann said permits to kill about 9,000 tortoises had been issued since June, and more permits would be issued until the rules change. Many of these permits could remain in force for years for major housing and commercial developments, he said.
Wildlife advocates say that will result in continued, unacceptable cruelty to animals.
"You're talking about crushed-up tortoises. It's a bloody mess," said Jennifer Hobgood, program coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States' southeast regional office. "What's worse is the tortoises you don't see that will suffer for months before they die of dehydration or suffocation or starvation, immobilized in their burrows."
An outside stakeholders committee set up by the wildlife commission voted last month to urge the state to immediately cease issuing permits for killing tortoises, known as "incidental-take" permits. But business members of the committee, including the Florida Homebuilders, Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Assn. of Florida Community Developers, dissented.
In a written statement, they said such a decision would not consider "the unintended consequences and the resulting legal ramifications that could result from such a draconian action." They said many developers who obtain incidental-take permits actually relocate the tortoises to safer places on their property.
Elsa Haubold, a commission biologist, said it would be impossible to relocate thousands of tortoises without obtaining the necessary land and ensuring that the animals could be moved safely.
Tortoise relocations have a spotty record, with careless relocations allowing them to wander onto roads or die from lack of food.
"There's not necessarily places to house these tortoises," Haubold said. "And these places need to be identified before you can move them."
Last summer, on the advice of its biologists, the commission voted to reclassify the gopher tortoise from a species of special concern to threatened, a higher threat level that indicated increased concern about its prospects for survival.