BROOKSVILLE - Efforts to establish a county-owned gopher tortoise relocation habitat are moving almost as slowly as the reptiles themselves.
The state has set down stringent rules about how gopher tortoises can be transported to a protected site and what condition that habitat is in once the reptiles get there.
Despite that, the county is moving forward with its management plan for the relocation of gopher tortoises to the county-managed Lake Townsen environmentally sensitive lands preserve.
If all goes well, the first gopher tortoises could start arriving on the 300-acre site in 2014 or 2015.
"We are making what I think is good progress," Conservation Lands Specialist Jim King told county commissioners this week. "We are on schedule, maybe even slightly ahead, although I hate to say that because Mother Nature has a way of ruining that."
Last year, commissioners directed staff to establish a gopher tortoise recipient site at Lake Townsen, one of the county's environmentally sensitive lands.
These state-protected reptiles have negatively affected some construction projects, which had to be halted while certified gopher tortoise handlers removed them to approved habitats elsewhere in the region.
For example, during the widening of Sunshine Grove Road and the county landfill construction project, the county paid $220,000 to relocate 106 tortoises.
King said the county has to pay three ways: permit and mitigation fees, relocation costs and money to help maintain the habitats where gopher tortoises are sent. Funding for the program comes from the Environmentally Sensitive Lands (ESL) Program and from grants.
King said the Lake Townsen site is ideal because it has the requisite well-drained soils, low water table and enough room for the tortoises to burrow. Only four gophers per acre are permitted.
"The costs savings potentially over the next 20 years is a rather healthy sum of money," King said.
But there is plenty of work to be done before the gopher tortoises can move to their new home.
Lake Townsen Preserve must be cleared of debris, scrub and some invasive exotic plants dangerous to tortoises.
To prevent tortoise wandering, it will be necessary to erect fences at the Lake Townsen site for at least six months, enough time for the reptile to establish a new burrow and forget its old home.
The county must then appeal to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation for a permit so it can start controlled burns on an annual basis to keep the preserve in shape.
Once the habitat is improved, the county must prepare a gopher tortoise management plan and submit it to FWC for permission.
King believes he will be able to accommodate up to 900 tortoises on the preserve, located off Lake Lindsay Road, between Daly and Lingle.
Once established, the preserve could serve the county's needs for up to 20 years, King says.
County staffers would become certified in tortoise handling and it won't be necessary to call a trained expert every time a burrow was found on a road project or other construction site.
Resident Shirley Miketinac was surprised at the plethora of rules and regulations.
"This is amazing what we are told we have to do," she said.
Miketinac said she is against systematically taking down trees to protect the tortoises.
County Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who has taken the lead in this project, said the average cost per tortoise to be removed is $2,000.
If the county cuts that in half, the money can be used to help maintain the preserve and would make the relocation project self-sustaining.
"To me, it's a long time coming," Dukes said.
To learn more about the state's rules and regulations concerning gopher tortoise relocation and to see the 243-page management plan, visit http://my fwc.com/media/2286685 /GT-Management-Plan.pdf