FWS Call for Comments
US FISH AND WILDIFE SERVICE HAS A 90 DAY PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD OF THE POSSIBLE FEDERAL LISTING OF THE GOPHER TORTOISE.
We encourage you to provide your comments for details on the federal listing. For details go to www.fws.gov/northflorida or contact:
Public Information Officer
North Florida Ecological Services Office
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
7915 Baymeadows Way, Suite 200
Jacksonville, Florida 32256-7517
OUR POSITIONS ON LISTING
In 2004 we petitioned the FWS to list the gopher tortoise in Florida as threatened. In 2006 we were asked to up date the petition with new information. At that time some strides were being made to eliminate the Incidental Take method of conservation and the required testing for URTD. We declined to up date it until the FWC had created a management plan for the gopher tortoise. Although we were not notified, they apparently dropped our petition. However several organizations filed similar petitions for listing and FWS is moving forward with the process.
Where do we stand?
The FWC has bulked at making changes or correcting many issues as was pointed out in the letter sent by the IUCN Turtle and Tortoise Specialist Group to the FWC Commissioners before their April 15, 2009 meeting. A copy of this letter can be pulled up from the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Efforts page. At this meeting changes were made on the conservation plan guidelines, many of which did little to positively change the efforts. Since then, FWC staff has been exceedingly negative about making changes and because of this the whole concept of having tortoise conservation is in great jeopardy.
The major issues are the lack of the variety of tortoise relocation sites. This has cut out private landowners, county conservation lands. This also causes the cost of relocation to rise and people have no place to put tortoises that are found wandering.
Increased fees are driving people and corporations to not apply for permits. This leads to entombment or willy-nilly placement of tortoises as has been done in the past.
The fees charged by FWC for relocation for permits is out of line and this combined diversifying relocation sites and permits has made the tortoise an economic predator.
There is no method of evaluation of relocation sites to determine stocking rates or to establish baseline data from which FWC can check on habitat management in the future.
Surveys (15%) to determine how many tortoises are on a proposed recipient site do not work. Yet it is still used by FWC
Relocation managers do not have to be certified and no courses are offered or a check on their abilities is in place.
The methods of certifying agents as it is now have no way of determining if they know how or use best management practices. The current methods are making it nearly impossible for individuals or small firms to become certified.
There is no long term plan to fund long term monitoring and management of relocation sites. This has caused many conservation organizations and public lands agencies to bulk at establishing conservation lands programs.
Tortoises will be moved from only the building foot print. This could lead to the demise of thousands of tortoises being killed directly during development or slowly due to lack of habitat and forage.
Finally, FWC needs to have accountability for the decisions that they make in Tallahassee. Show proof of why decisions are made and explain the conservation value of it.
WHAT ABOUT FWS TAKING OVER
At this point, looking at their record on gopher tortoise conservation in Mississippi and Alabama it appears that it is conservation based on the agent in charges attitudes about what is conservation and not on what we know. I cannot say that tortoises under FWS are faring any better than with FWC.
There are major problems in the western US with the desert tortoise. In this case, FWS has caused more problems with their rules and have one disaster after another with relocation or Defense, Bureau of Land Management and others including researchers have demonstrated few successes in desert tortoise protection.
Finally FWS shows its inability to (actually surpassing FWC) change rules that are actually causing the demise of a species. Case in point is the Indigo Snake. No plan that works has stoked the black market trade in Indigos and has time and again allowed massive habitat losses where this snake was common.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
I believe if you care about long term conservation of gopher tortoises and all the species tied to it is to get something going with FWC to get assurances that the above problems will be fixed. And, be sure they will say how they will do it.
Developers, large landowners, silviculture and agriculture as well as local governments should go to their legislators and demand that FWC fix the fatal flaws in their plans. Home builder associations, Farm Bureau and others should use their political power to force FWC to change the fatal flaws in their management plan.
At this point, I believe it is a toss up as to which is the frying pan and which is the fire. At least FWC has a start. If you look at the way they handle issues in states where the tortoise is federally protected, one will see that it may well be worse for this federal agency to take over tortoise conservation.