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"THEY'LL BE EXTINCT": Lehigh group seeks to protect gopher tortoises

A local Lehigh group is marking gopher tortoise habitats. The group wants the county to adopt an ordinance to require builders to prove the animal isn't on the property before building.
gophertort sign
Posted at 4:45 PM, May 31, 2024

LEHIGH, Fla. — Have you seen stakes, yellow caution tape and signs on empty lots in Lehigh Acres?

The East Lee County Wildlife Stewardship group is marking the habitats where the threatened species lives.

"We walk through these undeveloped lots. We look for these gopher tortoise burrows and we mark them," Kara Tyler-Julian said.

Find more on the East Lee County Wildlife Stewardship Group here.

She's a member of the group surveying empty lots for gopher tortoise burrows. Once participants tape off the area, they install signs with information on how to get a permit to remove the tortoises, and how to report it to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

Every weekend, Tyler-Julian and others in the group spend hours marking, recording and reporting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission about the burrows they find.

Tyler-Julian says they want to protect the threatened species as many other animals rely on gopher tortoise burrows.

"They're like neighbors to people. Their best friend. They wave hi to them," she said.

Tyler-Julian showed Lehigh Acres Community Correspondent Ella Rhoades how to look out for burrows. Typically, there's a mound of sand and a worn out path from the tortoises.

FWC doesn't know tortoises are there unless someone tells them which means they can get cleared off property illegally.

The group hopes to prevent people clearing or killing the animals before its too late.

"It's a big enforcement gap. There's no one there to help prevent....to help stop. They're just waiting until the crime has occurred to do anything when it comes to the wildlife violation," Tyler-Julian said.

Monica Fish is a group member and helps with the surveys.

She worries what the species' future could look like.

Fish said, "They'll be extinct because nobody is acknowledging they exist."

Their group wants the county to adopt an ordinance that requires builders to prove that there are no tortoises on the property before they can build.

"There's no need to just landscape out the whole natural world," Fish added.

They plan to rally before the Lee County Commissioners meeting June 4 to get the community's attention.

Find more information on gopher tortoises here.