Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gopher Tortoise Decimation ...

If you've driven down San Marco towards Goodland lately, you've seen what looks like a war zone at 2297 San Marco Road. The damage was done by Marco Island Academy. MIA organizers announced plans earlier this year to open their new charter school there, in spite of the fact that doing so would mean the destruction of important habitat for gopher tortoises, a state-protected species.

I live nearby and have been watching that population of gopher tortoises closely for quite a while. I know that there were far more tortoises present than the ones that were relocated by FWC. I also know, based on the important field and genetic work being done by wildlife biologist Julie Ross, that relocation of even a few individual animals from our genetically distinct population is not good conservation practice.

How were permits issued so quickly for the destruction of habitat and relocation of a protected species? Were proper protocols followed, or were corners cut at the expense of wildlife and people who care about wildlife? A good journalist would be doing the community a public service by investigating the timeline of this project, and the degree of its compliance with state wildlife laws.

Last week the Eagle reported that MIA is abandoning the property (at least temporarily), having permanently decimated it as tortoise habitat and having permanently reduced the number of tortoises left on our island. Their decision to relocate to First Baptist Family Church was, according to the Eagle, made for financial reasons.

What the story didn't report is that MIA, in its rush to start something of value, has taken something of value from all of us who live on Marco Island. It's hard to put a dollar value on our natural beauty and already-dwindling ecological diversity, but there's no question that we are now poorer than we were before.

I'm especially saddened because over the last few months, I've seen several tortoises killed by cars in the Dogwood Drive area where I live. (For some rather gruesome pictures, go to http://sites.google.com/site/ecomarcowildlife/ and http://ecomarco.blogspot.com/.) Careless driving and reckless planning, it turns out, have similar effects on wildlife.

"Who cares?" might be the response of some, but Marco Island's leaders would be unwise to dismiss the tourism value of our native wildlife. Our beach is great, but why shouldn't we offer a great beach plus a vibrant natural environment where people have the chance to observe eagles, gopher tortoises, burrowing owls, native songbirds, and other remnants of "the real Florida?"

We can hope that our journalists, local elected officials, and FWC will do a better job of monitoring future projects with the goal of preventing future tragedies like the one that just occurred on San Marco drive.

In that light, it's more clear than ever how wise the Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation (http://marcoeaglesanctuaryfoundation.com/) was to organize and act quickly to protect our island's small eagle population. They knew that the only way you can protect a protected species is by protecting its habitat. Those of us who are concerned about the whole range of our native wildlife need to follow the good example of MESF by advocating and organizing for our fellow creatures who have neither voices, votes, nor money.

Each time I drive by the scene of destruction at 2297 San Marco Road, I'll be increasingly motivated to do just that.

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