Up to 10 gopher tortoises discovered during a recent survey in Gleason Park in Indian Harbour Beach are being relocated to avoid an invasive-species removal project targeting Brazilian Peppers.
Atlantic Environmental Solutions was contracted for $1,900 last fall to survey all of the suitable tortoise habitats, assess whether burrows were occupied or abandoned, and locate them on aerial photographs.
Results showed a total of 42 burrows in the park which was divided into zones, with the interior of the park within the paved trail having the most. The pepper trees are being removed – and the tortoises moved – from four small zones on the outside of the trail loop, said Indian Harbour Beach Public Works Director Todd Scaldo.
Gopher Tortoises were first noted in the park in the early 2000s when officials considered expanding the swimming pool parking lot. The most recent survey showed that the burrows have been moved south over the years, further away from the pool.
“Our No. 1 priority is the turtles (tortoises), that’s why we look for the burrows before we do anything,’’ he said.
Based on the survey results, the year-long permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, issued Dec. 7, allows up to 10 gopher tortoises to be “live captured by non-harmful methods” and relocated on site. Of the two zones completed and cleared so far, only three tortoises have been relocated, he said.
Addressing concerns on social media that the park was looking barren after the work, the areas where the pepper trees were removed are expected to be planted this summer with native oaks and other vegetation with some of the areas set aside for exercise equipment, he said.
“We have to be very careful with the park in terms of Brazilian pepper trees. That’s why we looked to start doing this because the way it was looking, if we didn’t do something now then all the good vegetation would be history,” Scaldo said.
Brazilian peppertrees (Schinus terebinthifolius) are an invasive species that spreads rapidly and forms a dense thicket of tangled woods that completely shades out and displaces native vegetation. These trees are a threat to the diversity of natural systems, according to information compiled by Indian Harbour Beach City Manager Mark Ryan.
According to a Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council’s Brazilian Pepper Task Force 2006 publication, these trees display allergen-causing properties similar to those induced by poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Exposure to the volatile flower secretions or the sap of Brazilian peppertrees can produce a variety of allergic reactions.
Longtime park-goer Lorraine Brady Jones had expressed her concerns on Facebook about the Gleason project hurting the tortoises, but agrees that the pepper tree removal is needed.
“I’ve been going there since 2017. I think (the relocation plan is) OK, as long as these poor babies are not sent away or feel like it’s not a good place to live anymore,” she said.
Scaldo said he walks the Gleason path every day about 4:30 p.m. and often sees a handful of gopher tortoises out grazing. He also sees people trying to pick them up or feed them, both of which are illegal. One tried to put a tortoise in the water because he said it looked all dried up, Scaldo said.