Marco Islanders band together to rescue gopher tortoises

Local environmentalists and volunteers carefully shoveled big piles of sand that were dumped May 8 on top of gopher tortoise burrows at an empty lot on Dogwood Drive.

“There was a lot of shoveling and manual labor because heavy equipment can’t be used out of fear that the burrows will collapse,” said Matt Finn.

Covering these burrows with thick layers of sand or dirt can put the gopher tortoises in danger, said Finn. “Maybe the baby ones might have been suffocated,” he said.

Volunteers dug through the sand just enough so that the gopher tortoises could exit by themselves. By Memorial Day weekend, there was evidence that some of them had self-excavated.

Volunteers remove excess sand on May 18 to help gopher tortoises self-excavate.

The Marco Patriots, a local non-profit that specializes in rescue operations and emergency support, coordinated the operation with Finn’s guidance.

“Half a dozen of the Marco Patriots brought loaders, excavators and dump trucks and we worked side by side with (Finn) to save these tortoises,” said Matthew Melican of the Marco Patriots.

The owner of the lot provided a construction dumpster to deposit the excess sand, said Finn.

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Any person who dumps litter in an amount exceeding 500 pounds in weight or 100 cubic feet in volume or in any quantity for commercial purposes is guilty of a felony of the third degree, as stated by the Florida Litter Law.

Collapsing gopher tortoise burrow entrances or other parts of tortoise burrows without a permit also violates Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) rules.

Gopher tortoises dig deep burrows for shelter and forage on low-growing plants, according to the FWC website. Gopher tortoises share their burrows with more than 350 other species, and in Florida, the gopher tortoise is listed as threatened.

The life of gopher tortoises revolves around its burrows where they spend up to 80% of their time, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Both the gopher tortoise and its burrows are protected under state law, according to the FWC website. Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the FWC before capturing and relocating tortoises.

On May 9, a day after the dump on Dogwood Drive took place, a truck hauling a concrete pump drove through two lots which contained tortoise burrows, according to captain David Baer of the Marco Island Police Department (MIPD).

Marco Island PD is looking for a black dump truck with the name "West Coast Trucking."

“The responsible party was issued notice of violations and taken to the magistrate yesterday (May 28), however the case was continued until next month," Baer said.

After these two incidents, some volunteers were left wondering who is in charge of rescuing gopher tortoises.

“There was no rapid response, not from the city or the state,” Finn said.

The public information officer of FWC's south region, Carol Lyn Parrish, said Wednesday that the state agency rescues and relocates gopher tortoises but oftentimes the landowners are responsible for removing any material that was dumped on their property even if it was done without their authorization.

“The burden of proof falls on the property owner," Parrish said.

Captain Baer said the MIPD is looking for a vehicle of interest to the investigation of the Dogwood Drive case.

“It’s a black truck with red letters that say, ‘West Coast Trucking,’” Baer said.

As of Wednesday, there were no updates in regard to this vehicle, Baer wrote in an email to the Eagle.

Baer urged Marco Islanders to call the MIPD at 239-389-5050 if they have any information that could help authorities locate this truck.

Gopher tortoise eggs are deposited between May and July, and incubation lasts 80 to 100 days. It is unknown whether eggs were inside either burrow.  

The piles of sand were dropped on a vacant lot on 1850 Dogwood Drive, behind Shops of Marco.