The gopher tortoise is a vulnerable species that has to be relocated before developers can build on sites, at a cost of $1,100 per tortoise for the Kings Landing development.
With Kings Landing on Hensel Road — the last development site east of I-95 in Port Orange — gearing up to build new homes for people within the next 90 days, the land's current residents are also awaiting a new home.
Those residents are gopher tortoises.
The gopher tortoise is considered to be a “vulnerable” species according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is a requirement for all developers to do a permitted land survey to identify any gopher tortoises living on development sites. Once identified, the animals have to be relocated to an area that is permitted by the State.
Frank Costa, a licensed real estate broker with Liberty Group Realty and manager of the Kings Landing Development, hired the private company of Zevcohen and Associates, a landscaping and environmental engineering company, to relocate the tortoises.
“This is my first time doing tortoises so I got educated a couple months back on the process,” Costa said. “I thought it was as simple as you pick them up and take them some place else, but it’s a long process, a lot of paper work, with a lot of money involved.”
But it's worth it, Costa added, despite relocation coming with a high price tag. It cost Costa $1,100 per tortoise. Kings Landing has 56 gopher tortoises to relocate.
“This is really good for people to understand that so much effort is put into preserving and protecting them,” said Bill Lites, ecologist and director of environmental sciences for Zevcohen.
Recipient sites can have between two to four tortoises per acre. Environmentalists in these areas are responsible for managing the land to be sure it is good gopher tortoise habitat. The tortoises at Kings Landing will go to Lake X, close to St. Cloud, where they will be monitored for 20 years.
Relocation needs to occur within 90 days of a development breaking ground. Longer than 90 days, the animals will return to the land and rebuild their burrows, which means the rehoming process has to begin again. That becomes more time consuming and costly.
Gopher tortoises are considered a “gateway species” because they dig burrows deep into the ground which can be as long as 15 to 25 feet in length. Lites said up to 400 other species of animals can live in their burrows.
How deep a burrow goes is variable.
“If you’re in a flatwood where the water table is high, they don’t go too much below the water table," He said. "But if you’re in the sandhill, like where we are now up on a ridge, they will go deeper. If you’re on the Mt. Dora ridge where it’s really far down to the water table, they’ll go literally 20 vertical feet."
After 100% of the land is surveyed and gopher tortoise burrows have been identified, the excavation process begins.
A tortoise burrow is marked by smooth patches of dirt around grass areas that may have footprints on them. An environmentalist places a PVC hose into the hole to determine if an animal is present, and how far into the hole the tortoise may be.
Once located, a bulldozer starts digging close to the hole. After moderate amounts of dirt are removed, the environmentalist digs closer to the hole itself. This process is repeated until the tortoise is located.
After being removed from a burrow, the animal is placed in a large plastic bin with dirt and grasses, and taken to a holding place with other tortoises. The tortoises have to be rehomed within 72 hours of being removed from their habitat.
Tortoises are checked and weighed. Environmentalists look at their eyes to see how clear they are. An animal with cloudy eyes is considered unhealthy and taken to a vet for treatment.
The relocation site provides a starter burrow for the animal. This gives the tortoises time to adjust to their new environment. They can be territorial and males will battle one another for space.
Tortoises can become stressed in the cold. If an area has been colder than 50 degrees for three days, the animals cannot be relocated. Recipient sites are within 100 miles of where the tortoises are originally identified.
At the recipient site, the tortoises are caged in with a silt fence for six months to prevent the animals from leaving the area. After the half year is up, the fences are taken down and animals can move anywhere. A silt fence will also be built around King’s Landing to keep tortoises from moving into the area.