APOPKA, Fla. - Channel 9 was there Thursday afternoon as crews began digging up dozens of gopher tortoises off County Road 435 in Apopka in an effort to relocate them.
The three-week relocation process will remove the tortoises from a path that will soon be under the Wekiva Parkway. The effort will cost taxpayers roughly $100,000.
There are roughly 260 holes in the ground, which mark the entrance to the home of a potential tortoise. Not every hole is occupied, however, as some might have moved on while others have more than one burrow, officials said.
WFTV learned on Thursday that some of those holes can take hours to excavate, with some being 35 feet long and 12 feet deep.
“They have one entrance. The burrow is as wide as the turtle needs to turn around, do a 180,” said Environmental Coordinator Joel Johnson.
There are millions of gopher tortoises in Florida, but environmental experts said saving 150 of them is still important.
“They provide refuge to a number of other species: the indigo snake, gopher frog, pine snake,” said coordinator Mike DiNardo. “They call it a keystone species."
Once a tortoise leaves his home, other creatures that can't dig so well often take up residence.
Those burrows then provide refuge for species escaping fire, maintaining humidity and escaping heat, officials said.
So far, crews have found about 50 tortoises. Those tortoises will be taken to a ranch in South Florida where they can build new homes.
Construction on the Wekiva Parkway is set to start as early as this month.