More than a dozen gopher tortoises are being relocated from a new home construction site.
The builder would have been within its rights to crush or bury the reptiles – a reminder of changes in state policy in the years since permits first were issued for this project, at the new Keystone Springs subdivision off Old East Lake Road in Tarpon Springs.
Instead, a team of rescuers from the Humane Society of the United States spent the last several days locating the creature's burrows and carefully digging them out. They were working in cooperation with the builder, Deeb Family Homes.
"If this wasn't done, these gopher tortoises would be buried under construction. So this project really saves the gopher tortoise and gives them a second chance," said Dave Pauli, response director with the Humane Society.
The gopher tortoise is a threatened species and protected by state law in Florida. It digs deep tunnels underground and helps provide habitat for up to 350 other species of plants and animals, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Rescuers found 20 gopher tortoises in two days at the Keystone Springs site, ranging in age from 1 to more than 50 years old. The reptiles can live to 100.
Several private donors helped pay for the removal, including Erika Seshadri, a wildlife biologist and Humane Society's Florida state council.
"I just think it's really important for the species to survive; every individual counts at this point because they are a threatened species," Seshadri said.
She would not say how much she donated for the work.
The gopher tortoises will be released on Nokuse Plantation, a 50,000-acre wilderness near Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle.