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Environmental groups sue the federal government over slowing protections for gopher tortoises

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Environmental groups say they will suethe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the gopher tortoise.

Elise Bennett, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, based in St. Petersburg, said federal environmental regulators had previously found the tortoises required protection, but now say they will not be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made some really bleak projections, including that, by 2100, we could lose nearly three quarters of remaining gopher tortoise populations," Bennett said. "That is an incredibly huge loss, especially considering that the species has been in decline for decades now."

Click here to view the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s findings on gopher tortoises

Gopher tortoises like the same dry, sandy soil that is favored by developers. Florida law encourages the relocation of tortoises, which Bennett says perpetuates the destruction of its habitat.

The service has projected that by the end of the century, nearly three-quarters of the species could be lost — primarily to development that favors the same high, sandy soil where the tortoises live.

"We have come together to to challenge this decision because we simply think that it is wrong based on the science that we have, showing that the gopher tortoise is not only in continued decline," Bennett said, "but that its main threat — which is habitat destruction from urban development — is continuing and it's only growing. We haven't stopped the spread. It's getting worse."

Matthew Aresco is a board member at Nokuse Education, the other environmental group involved in the lawsuit.

Aresco says gopher tortoises have shovel-like front legs and strong, thick back legs that help them dig intricate burrows, which are relied upon by more than 360 other species. Gopher tortoise burrows are considered key features in the large, unfragmented upland ecosystems these communities of wild animals need to survive.

“We are committed to the conservation of the gopher tortoise, and to fulfill that commitment we must challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service’s flawed protection decision,” Aresco said. “Without stronger regulation and protection under the Endangered Species Act, gopher tortoise populations and their habitat will continue to decline.”

According to Bennett, tortoises have already lost 97% of the longleaf pine savannas they historically inhabited and continue to be severely threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation driven by urbanization. This limits food availability and options for burrow sites, which exposes them to being crushed in their burrows during construction, run over by cars, or senselessly attacked by people. Tortoises are also threatened by disease, invasive species like fire ants, and climate change.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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