Cruel Construction

WSVN — Depending on your point of view, this is what progress looks like, or it is what death looks like.

And, for a gopher tortoise, it's death.

They live in burrows that can run 40 feet deep.

And, when land is cleared, they are often buried alive.

Jen Hobgood, Humane Society of the United States: “They can't get out of the burrow, and it can take them up to one year to die. One biologist has told us it could take that long to die of suffocation, dehydration or starvation. It is an absolutely excruciating kind of death.”

Hobgood says tens of thousands of tortoises have been buried or crushed at construction sites across Florida.

Dr. Stefan Harsch: “She's been here a week now. She's on pain medications.”

Dr. Stefan Harsch is caring for a gopher tortoise found injured in Lighthouse Point.

She is expected to survive.

Despite pressure from animal advocates, the state of Florida has condoned the killing of gopher tortoises for years.

It issues permits that allow developers to knowingly kill the defenseless creatures.

Lewis Moscovitch, Symphony Builders: “This is a typical gopher tortoise hole.”

Lewis Moscovitch is building condos Fort Pierce.

He says the only permit the state would issue him was one that allowed him to kill the tortoises.

He moved them instead.

Lewis Moscovitch: “I think many developers would say, 'If we're spending the money, let's save them rather than spend the money and destroy them.”

But moving them is not that easy.

The cost can be as much as $2,000 per tortoise.

Lewis Moscovitch: “A lot of red tape and unnecessary costs.”

Carmel Cafiero: “There's much more at stake here than what happens to the gopher tortoise. That's because what happens to them can affect more than 300 other species that share their burrows.”

And that includes everything from snakes to mice.

Mark Kraus, Audubon of Florida: “The gopher tortoise is what we call a keystone species. If you provide the right habitat for the gopher tortoise, it provides habitat for other species.”

Mark Kraus is the deputy director of the Audubon of Florida.

He says the state is recognizing the gopher tortoise needs help, and it is in the process of changing the status from a species of special concern to endangered.

But the organization believes the state's plans don't go far enough.

Mark Kraus: “It gives a lot of latitude to land owners and to local officials to make decisions.”

And that might mean less enforcement, which means less protection.

But the days of cruel construction may be beginning to end.

Rodney Barreto, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: “You kind of take pause and say, 'Wow, you're burying something alive. It just doesn't make any sense, so I think it's not business as usual.”

Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says he expects it will pass a rule this summer that will stop the smothering of gopher tortoises.

Rodney Barreto: “We're going to try to end this practice in Florida.”

But they are by no means out of the woods.

Still pending: thousands of kill permits that have already been issued.