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Gopher Tortoises Make Way for Wekiva Parkway

January 4, 2013 | WMFE- Construction of the 25 mile long toll road that will complete a beltway around Orlando is slated to begin in February. But before building on the Wekiva Parkway can start, threatened gopher tortoises have to be moved out of the way. Relocating the reptiles is one example of environmental mitigation underway on the $1.7 billion roadway project.

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On a patch of scrubby land near the near the Wekiwa Springs State Park, a backhoe excavates one of 260 identified gopher tortoise burrows. The backhoe driver delicately scoops dirt away, stopping every few feet so biologist Joel Johnson can climb into the crater to dig with a shovel.

Johnson is an environmental consultant with Scheda Ecological Associates. He says protecting the tortoises from harm is the top priority for this relocation project.

"When it gets down to the more intricate part of the excavation, you’ll dive in with an arm to pull the tortoise out," says Johnson.

"At some point it’s a personal touch. The iconic thing is this backhoe here digging these huge holes in the ground. But the action is really in a couple of feet, you know, five feet around that burrow."

Johnson says the gopher tortoise is important because other animals use its burrow  to shelter and find food.

The reptiles are powerful diggers. They can tunnel 25 feet below the surface.

The gopher relocation project started mid December, so far capturing more  than 40 tortoises.

Once the animals get a health check up they’ll be moved to a ranch in Okeechobee County, South Florida.


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