WEST PALM BEACH - Developers will no longer be allowed to bury gopher tortoises alive during construction under a moratorium approved Wednesday by state wildlife commissioners.
Under current gopher tortoise rules, developers are allowed to seek permits to bury them alive rather than relocate them during construction projects. About 70,000 gopher tortoises have been buried in the past 14 years under the state permitting system.
The tortoises, which can live for weeks before suffocating after entombment, burrow in sandy, dry areas such as dunes and have survived for 60 million years. Biologists estimate their numbers have dropped by up to 80 percent in the last century due to coastal development.
The commission also voted Wednesday during its meeting in Melbourne to add another level of protection for the tortoise, upgrading its status from species of special concern to threatened.
However, the status change won't take effect for at least several more months while a new management plan is being developed that aims to limit future burials or eliminate them altogether.
It remains illegal to take, possess, transport or sell gopher tortoises or their eggs, except by obtaining a state permit. The moratorium on burying gopher tortoises will go into effect July 30.
The Florida Home Builders Association has said it supports measures to protect the tortoise, regardless of additional relocation costs.