Construction of a 25-mile long toll road that will complete a beltway around Orlando is due to begin in February, but before building on the Wekiva Parkway can start, threatened gopher tortoises have to be moved out of the way.
The $1.7 billion roadway project is being showcased as an example of careful transportation planning through an environmentally sensitive area. In addition to relocating threatened species, the project will include fencing and wildlife bridges to minimize the risk of animal- vehicle collisions, and much of the roadway will be elevated.
About 260 gopher tortoise burrows have been identified around the first few miles of the parkway slated for construction. Backhoes are used to scoop away the bulk of the dirt, taking care not to disturb the burrow itself. The tunnel is marked with a long PVC pipe so the backhoe operator doesn't dig too deep.
Every few feet the backhoe driver stops, and a biologist - like environmental consultant Joel Johnson - climbs into the crater to dig with a shovel
"When it gets down to the more intricate part of the excavation, you’ll dive in with an arm to pull the tortoise out," says Johnson.
"At some point it’s a personal touch. The iconic thing is this backhoe here digging these huge holes in the ground, but the action is really in a couple of feet, you know, five feet around that burrow."
Gopher tortoises are powerful diggers. A typical burrow could extend 30 feet lengthwise and slope down to a depth of 25 feet.
Getting the tortoises out isn't easy.
"They are surprisingly strong, like most crevice dwelling and burrowing animals, and once they get in there and decide they don't want to come out, it becomes a matter of leverage," says Johnson.
"We have ones that dig as fast as we are. We're chasing them," he says.
"And then sometimes they come up and they look like a zombie coming out of a grave, out of the dirt right after you take a swipe."
The gopher tortoise is important to Florida's ecology because other animals use its burrow to shelter and find food.
"They call [the gopher tortoise] a keystone species," says Mike Dinardo, the environmental coordinator for the project.
"That burrow provides refuge for others escaping fire, maintaining humidity and escaping heat."
The gopher tortoises' room mates include the indigo snake, the gopher frog and the pine snake, as well as crickets and other insects.
The gopher relocation project started mid December, so far capturing more than 40 tortoises. It could take another few weeks to dig up the remaining burrows.
Once the animals get a health check up they’ll be moved to a ranch in Okeechobee County, South Florida.