Ashton Biodiversity Research and Preservation Institute, Inc.

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Annual Report

May 30, 2009

Please forgive the delay in getting the report out for 2008. Here is a summary of what ABRPI did this past year.

Gopher Tortoise Conservation Efforts

FWC

The vast majority of our work has been to work through the Gopher Tortoise Advisory Group to get FWC to create the details that will cause the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan work or fail. The GTAG met 4 times in 2008. Ray serves on several working groups with the G3 or FWC staff and other members of GTAG, these groups that worked through last year included Research, Certification, Commensals, and Diseases. There were three draft revisions of the GT management Plan and Ray wrote complete reviews for each. A number of changes have been made.

Freshwater Turtle Rule

We worked on the Turtle Advisory Group that developed the plan for the new Florida Turtle Rule which will go before the FWC Commission in April (it did and passed). This will stop commercial trade in wild caught animals but will allow for captive breeding including ranching and farming. People will be allowed to have and catch and have in their possession one wild caught tortoise. They can have all the captive ones they want. This puts a stopper in the capturing and sale of spotted turtles from states where they are protected. There will be public hearings between April 15th and some time in May. Then the Commission will be

Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative (GTCI)

Thanks to MC Davis pushing us into getting back into conservation and helping to finance it along with the income from Ashton, Ashton & Associates and donations and sales of tee shirts, books, and tortoise crossing signs, the GTCI was indeed a powerful citizens group that accomplished more over the past 6 years than has been done since the listing of the gopher tortoise. The pressure that came to bare on FWC has been very successful. We also have a number of counties that have passed tortoise conservation regulations and even county commissioners have been elected in part of their positive attitude about protecting tortoises. We forced FWC to start developing stakeholder groups when we began to develop our own. It was one of our volunteers that we convinced to find a good conservation tax exemption rule in some other state that got things going which led to the conservation land tax exemption. Thanks to Florida Wildlife especially Preston Williams who picked up the ball in Tallahassee and the statewide effort go get the vote out, it passed and if nothing changes, folks will get tax breaks or pay no taxes on lands in perpetual conservation easement.

We have had to curtail GTCI because of economic reasons. The economic down turn left individuals and groups without the ability to support the program and our work declined as well making it hard to just make ends meet.

Certification Courses

ABRPI developed a successful proposal to teach the certification courses that people who do not have enough experience working with tortoises have to have to become certified by FWC. After April 21, consultants and land managers working with tortoises must be certified to obtain permits and carry out relocation, excavation, can trapping and several other areas. Note that FWC does not require people who are putting together or managing recipient sites to be certified.

ABRPI joined up with Wildlands Inc, another nonprofit conservation organization run by Julie Morris, one of our interns in 2000, and Dave Sumpter who got his MS with Henry Mushinsky on gopher tortoises. These folks do land management and conservation work. Under a cooperative agreement (see attached), they are handling the bookings, budget and help out with setting up locations. We are teaching courses at the Sebastian Inlet Center, in Polk County, Nokuse, and Collier County. We have already had 4 courses.

Evaluation of Individuals

Ray has been approved to evaluate individual’s and their abilities to carry out excavations, handling and evaluating tortoises, can trapping, and surveying tortoises and recommending them for certification in the areas he has observed. This is a much better way to determine if someone knows the right way to do things like excavation. We charge by the day plus expenses.



EDUCATION AND PROGRAMS

ABRPI was awarded a contract by FWC to develop teacher training programs on tortoise natural history and conservation. This project will include a manual, PowerPoint programs and teaching materials.

Courses

In 2008 we taught 2 three day Tortoise Boot Camp and 2 Recipient Site Development, Managing and the economics of establishing relocation sites. We taught an additional course in Naples which was taught at and co-sponsored by the SW Nature Conservancy. This was our 10th year teaching professional training courses. We have had nearly 1000 participants over that time.

Education Programs and Presentations

We provided 3 workshops for county government, 4 for various conservation associations, including keynotes for a 2 annual meetings and a program at the International Herpetology Symposium. Ray was awarded the Florida Citizen of the Year by the Florida Bar at the annual Environmental Law Conference at the University of Florida.

We were invited to conduct a half day seminar on tortoise relocation and what needs to be considered for a successful program at the Annual Turtle Survival Association (TSA) in Tucson, Az. This was done to discuss the issues and failures that led the federal courts to stop certain desert tortoise relocations due certain failures causing mortality in relocated animals.

We developed a workshop on “Maintaining Amphibians in Captivity “for the Florida Zoo Keepers Association. Elliott Jacobson and Mark Robertson provided parts of the program. We have a turtle and tortoise program planned for the future. We had approximately 15 keepers and other staff from various zoos across the state.

Interns

We hosted two interns, one from Wichita Kansas and the other from Connecticut. We decided not to continue the intern program after last summer. It takes time and money, both of which are in short supply. Instead, we are going to encourage volunteers to work with us.

Book

The Ashton and Ashton 2008. The Natural History and Management of the Gopher Tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus (Daudin). Krieger Press, Malabar, Fl was released in January. Much to our dismay, the publisher went ahead and published the book over our protests because the last page proofs were a total disaster. There was no Index (which we paid to have done), the photos were not in color and to date, and we have found 108 errors. If we had the money and time we would consider a law suit.



OTHER

Publications

Two manuscripts were in press and will be released in 2009. .

Films

The filming with David Attenborough and his last series “Their Blood Run’s Cold, was completed and reviews of the book were done by us. Two parts of the film which included a tortoise kicking a diamondback when it was annoyed and the escape of a gopher tortoise from a fire are up for (and won some wildlife film award. BBC did not bother to tell us what the award was.

The PBS Wildlife in Florida Series was released. We filmed a segment on research and how to do tortoise relocation.

Our research has been hampered by a lack of funds and time. We hope to change that in 2009. We want to go full steam on the low frequency sound communications in tortoises with an emphasis on gopher tortoise communication tied to behavior.

We are still cooperating with South Georgia University and the University of Alabama on gopher tortoise and other tortoise research.



THE FURTURE OF ABRPI

The year 2009 will begin some great changes in ABRPI.

GOALS

  1. Re-establish our research and publications efforts related to gopher tortoise behavior and relocation.
  2. Currently about 50% of our time is related to working with people across the state, evaluating and commenting on FWC permitting, guidelines, and other issues. The frustration level is high and the results are not worth the effort at this point. They believe permitting is the way to make tortoise conservation work, not establishing a plan for relocation that will work economically, socially, or establish a program that will possibly protect tortoises and their habitats in perpetuity. Staff that has been hired by FWC to manage the tortoise program is not trained well enough to determine what a good plan is and which is not.

  3. Continue support for public efforts and concerns about the protection of the gopher tortoise and back up Matt Aresco on the aquatic turtle rules.
  4. The plan is to be responsive and not to keep pushing the correct aspects of the plan. I will likely resign from the Tortoise Advisory Group this year. FWC has managed to work it so the group has little of substance to discuss and does not want the group to keep pushing and debating key elements of the plan. However, we get request for developing Community Tortoise Conservation Programs, providing help in developing tortoise protection efforts like we are doing now at Barefoot Beach in Collier County and gopher tortoise exhibits at the Florida State Museum and the Science Museum in Winston Salem, NC.

  5. Greatly reduce efforts with FWC in trying to insure that they will develop a viable relocation program for Gopher Tortoises.
  6. The frustration level that we and others have with FWC at this time makes it almost impossible to work with the staff in Tallahassee. They have now established the rules and they now use them like a fundamentalist preacher uses the bible in arguing about evolution. If they invite me to meet with them about establishing a management plan for a statewide relocation program and are serious about it, I will sprout wings and fly there.

  7. Make training and evaluation efforts for certification a main effort and primary cash flow of ABRPI.
  8. We have joined up with Wildlands Conservation Inc. in Venice, Fl to develop an approved training program that will teach future certified agents on the correct way to carry out work like surveys, handling tortoises, excavating them safely and all the other aspects of tortoise management. We will also teach the methods right or wrong that have been made into the FWC Guidelines.

    Since February 2008, we have held 6 classes at the Institute and 2 classes at Sebastian Inlet SP. We have 2 scheduled at Rookery Bay in June (already full) and in Polk County at the WMD south of Lakeland in July. We have others planned at the Institute, Nokuse, and several are being reviewed.

    We hope to work with Nokuse, and the Humane Society in developing training and evaluation programs on Incidental Take Sites. By doing so, we can train consultants and backhoe operators in proper management of tortoise excavations, while increasing income and reducing expense per tortoise. This is in the planning stage.

  9. Offer assistance to institutions and individuals doing educational programs and exhibits or research and write some popular articles and books for young people and others on enjoying nature.
  10. See comments in No.2.

    We are completing the teacher’s training manual, facilitator program, programs and workbooks with activities for students on gopher tortoise’s natural history and conservation. This will be done July 1, 2009 and hopefully implemented before the end of the year.

    Ray is working on a book on a young naturalists adventures for Pineapple Press

    We are writing a book chapter on a German book about turtles and tortoises. This is about life history of the gopher tortoise.

    We are discussing a number of projects with the BBC on reptiles and amphibians. Most likely the first will be on the gopher and its commensals. Our first meeting is in July.

  11. Dissolve Ashton and Ashton and Associates, Inc., our profit making company to reduce costs in time and money. Channel appropriate projects though ABRPI.
  12. We have just completed the last AA&A project and rejected the last sustainable development project that was on developing sustainable wildlife uses and a school in Ghana. We will be closing out its accounts through this year, pending the approval of the board on changes in the ABRPI.

  13. ABRPI Future

      A. Ray cannot afford to continue the time and money consuming efforts trying to move FWC in the right direction with tortoise conservation or to support the massive time involvement in working to sustain the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative. (Board discussion)

      B. We do not see any changes in the by laws of the Institute.

      C. Ray and Pat will become employees of the Institute and paid directly though the Institute. Currently when funds come though ABRPI on projects they are working on, their salaries have been sent to AA&A which then pays them a salary. (Needs Board Approval)

      D. AA&A has been paying rent and utilities and equipment costs for the Institute. This will be paid directly by the Institute. Costs directly related to projects, education programs has been paid by the Institute and will continue to be paid this way. Income for these costs will come through the training programs, projects and farming tortoises. I am working on a budget now. (Board Discussion)

      E. The Ashton’s will likely donate the lab buildings and others to ABRPI as well as their library and other things as soon as it is clear that there is a likely way that the Institute has a way to continue after the Ashton’s are gone. Also the Institute land will be willed to the Institute or the organization that takes over. (Board Direction on this one)

      F. Dave Rostal, chairman of the Biology Dept. at Georgia Southern wishes to purchase the 40 acre ranch from the Ashton’s. An amount and gentleman’s agreement is in place for this to happen. We have had initial discussions with Fred Antonio, now the head of the Florida Indigo Snake Project to purchase or we donate the land to them if it does not work.

      We have one stumbling block with this. Alachua County says we gave up our rights or for others to build on the land in the non-conservation zone as outlined in our Conservation Easement. We never made or signed any agreement nor was it our intention ever. Curt Harbsmier is working on this issue for us now. We hope to clear this up soon so we can move on. The sale of this land is part of our retirement strategy now that we have the conservation easement in place.

      In either scenario, the remaining 56 acres and the Institute would be turned over to either one with the proper agreements in place when the Ashton’s leave. Or for that matter, if they can or want to no longer run the Institute.

  14. Don Powell, the Institute accountant has been guiding us, along with Curt in re-establishing the accounting procedures as required by law.


BOARD ACTIONS

We would like to set a meeting of the board in the next two months. We will need to set a date and place. Probably a good location would be Lakeland .

We could set up a phone conference call. I personally like to still sit at the table with folks but it is a choice.

It is also possible to meet at the Institute if you like. We have our guest room, two rooms and two rooms in the bunk house for those that would like to stay over.

Or, we can establish a ballot on the key points and send it out. I think I would like to call on the wisdom of the group to help us through this transition.

Dates

Many of us go to Daytona Beach for the Expo there the second weekend of August that could be a place to meet.


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