Gopher turtle movers sue FWC over temporary permit revocation
Edgewater company that relocates gopher turtles sued the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, seeking at least $ 500,000 in damages because it claims the state wrongly revoked its license to move turtles .
Kaiser Consulting Group LLC, Drew Kaiser and John Wilson filed a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and one of its employees, Claire Sunquist Blunden, two weeks ago in Leon County Circuit Court.
Keizer and Wilson both have state licenses to move gopher turtles, aka Gopherus polypemus, according to the lawsuit.
Gopher turtles are listed as endangered and must be relocated prior to land development. State law protects both the turtle and its burrow, which serves as shelter not only for the turtle, but for more than 350 other species, according to the Fish and Wildlife website.
But the state revoked their licenses on March 19 because it accused Kaiser and Wilson of failing to report the dead turtles, overstocking the turtle enclosures and failing to maintain a dilapidated enclosure. FWC then reinstated its licenses on April 7 in a brief letter in which it described the revocation of its licenses by its staff as a “procedural error”.
The FWC has bankrupted Kaiser and Wilson without notice or hearing or the opportunity to question or challenge the action, said Kenneth G. Oertel, the Tallahassee attorney who filed a lawsuit against the FWC.
“They just took it without notice, without any process, with nothing,” Oertel said. “They just wrote them a letter saying ‘your license is terminated.’ Well, Florida law doesn’t allow an agency to do that.
He said the FWC then returned the permits to Kaiser and Wilson and described the problem as a procedural error.
“It was not a procedural error,” Oertel said. “It was a fundamental constitutional violation of their rights.”
He also said the FWC was talking about finding fragments of turtle shells on ranches several thousand acres in size. Kaiser and Wilson were unaware of these remains.
“The rule says you have to report any turtles you find,” Oertel said. “You can’t report what you don’t know.”
In an email to the News-Journal, the FWC did not specifically comment on the allegations of the lawsuit.
“This is an ongoing investigation and we will release further details when they become available,” FWC spokesperson Carli Segelson wrote.
Kaiser and Wilson accused the state of “unlawful destruction” of their business and livelihoods due to the state’s immediate suspension of their professional licenses. The lawsuit accuses FWC employees of “a deliberate and malicious effort” to bankrupt them.
The FWC warned Kaiser on March 19 that their licenses could be revoked if they did not request a hearing, but then told them the same day that their licenses were immediately revoked, the lawsuit says. The FWC also published on its website that Kaiser and Wilson’s licenses have been revoked, according to the lawsuit.
The FWC then compounded the damage, according to the lawsuit, by telling all owners of the sites where Kaiser and Wilson dropped off the relocated gopher turtles that their licenses had been revoked.
The FWC told landowners at “recipient sites” that they should “work as quickly as possible to identify a new authorized agent,” so that the site’s license can be reinstated, according to the lawsuit.
The FWC said it revoked Kaiser and Wilson’s license due to what it claimed to be problems at several sites where gopher turtles are relocated:
- Beville Ranch is north of Bushnell and near Panasoffkee Lake.
- Highlands Ranch is located northeast of Lawtey, a town in Bradford County.
- Padgett Creek and Russakis Ranch are to the east and southeast of Yeehaw Junction, respectively, near US 441.
- Triple S. Ranch which is north of Okeechobee and near 441 and east of Okeechobee Correctional Facility
- Williamson Cattle Company is south of Triple S. Ranch.
In a letter dated March 19, 2021, the FWC said that on June 30, 2020, it visited the Highlands Ranch site and found six gopher turtles dead during a burrow survey and on September 22, he found 12 other dead turtles. Based on the disarticulation of the shells, the FWC wrote that it had determined that 11 of the 12 Gopher turtles had been dead for more than six months. These 11 turtles were not documented in an investigation conducted on March 31, 2020, which FWC said was a violation of the permit.
On March 2, FWC visited the Triple S Ranch and found “significant gaps” in the habitat type, which was listed as Saw Palmetto Grasslands on the permit, but was actually improved pasture.
Oertel, Kaiser and Wilson’s lawyer, said it was “absurd.”
“It’s pine and flat palm,” he says. “It’s not pasture at all.”
The FWC also said a “gradual release” area had been overcrowded, the document said.
The FWC visited the Beville ranch on March 10 and found that the soft-release pens had not been maintained and that no current pens had been installed to accept turtles, although online records indicated that between December 2020 and January 2021, 12 turtles had been moved.
FWC also found 60 turtle shells of turtles dead for one month to over three years. But no deaths had been reported at the Beville ranch since 2019 in violation of the permit.
The feral pigs at the site were unmanaged and causing significant damage according to the FWC, which said this was another violation of the permit.
FWC wrote that he visited Williamson Cattle and found four unreported dead turtles, unmaintained pens and unmanaged grass, all of which were violations.
The FWC traveled to Padgett Creek Phase 3 and found 35 dead turtles ranging from a few weeks to over 18 months old, in violation of permit requirements that turtle deaths must be reported within 30 days. The soft-release enclosures had fallen and were not being maintained, although the site had received turtles as recently as March, another violation according to the letter.
The only temporary enclosure at Padgett Creek was overcrowded as it had received 1,034 turtles, but the maximum it was allowed to hold was 739, another violation.
FWC checked Russakis Investments and found that the soft-release pens were in poor condition and had fallen out, another violation, the letter said.
“The FWC has determined that this license is hereby revoked without prejudice. Please stop working immediately, ”reads a letter from Claire Sunquist Blunden, Head of the FWC Section of the Wildlife Diversity Conservation Section.
This was followed by the April 7 letter saying the revocation was a procedural error.