Walton Solves its Turtle Problem

Progress on a new jail in Walton County may come with a price. The county is working with a conservationist to make sure a new jail facility won't endanger some of the area's original residents.

An area off of Highway 83 in north Walton County will soon be home to the new Walton County Jail, but it's already home to about 50 gopher tortoises, and moving the tortoises will save the county money.

If county officials don't take the time to move the tortoises, they'll have to pay additional environmental fees.

Billy McKee is Walton County’s environmental manager and says, “We feel like if we get the gophers removed we can put them on a place the whole population can be secured and it will benefit Walton County, the citizens, the gophers, and it will be a significant savings over having to destroy the gophers."

But the county has another motivation. On Monday the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced it plans to reclassify the gopher tortoise as an endangered species in June.

The county is being supported in its efforts by M. C. Davis, the founder of Nakuse Plantation.

"The county wants to save them. They want to be a leader, I believe, in gopher tortoise conservation, so it was a natural pairing."

The county plans to relocate the tortoises to Davis' wildlife sanctuary called Nakuse Plantation near Freeport. Davis says saving them will also be vital to other species that live near the gophers.

"They're a keystone species which means several hundred other species often rare and endemic to our area depend on them to live.”

Environment Manager Billy McKee echoed Davis’ thoughts.

“They’re a part of our county and there a part of our heritage; I think if we don't do something the county recognizes that they may not be here in the future for our children to see."

The relocation will take place late March or early April during warmer weather so the tortoises can dig new burrows. Davis will then maintain the management of monitoring of the gopher tortoises.

If you would like more information on gopher tortoises, or are interested in becoming an activist you can visit the Nakuse Plantation at www.nakuse.org.