In his 2008 book, Never Give Up: How I Turned My Biggest Challenges into Success, Donald Trump recalls how he set out to build his first golf course, in Florida in the late 1990s. The Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach was going to be among the greatest ever built, of course. The Donald committed $40 million to the project. But his team ran into extra obstacles that he’d never encountered in his Manhattan skyscraper deals.
“It was around this time I heard about the gopher tortoises,” Trump wrote. “This was definitely a new dilemma.”
The future golf course was already inhabited — by dozens of the gopher tortoises, according to Trump’s account. A wrinkly land-based turtle that grows to be almost a foot long, the species can live about long as humans, into their seventies. A detail that might endear them to Trump: They are sometimes called “wildlife landlords,” because their burrows have been known to support frogs, snakes, and more than 350 other types of wildlife species.
Now a threatened species, the big, slow shelled animals were deemed a “species of special concern” by Florida in 1999, and thus enjoyed certain legal protections.
Trump said his workers encountered 60 of the tortoises. That could be a yuge problem for a fast-moving land developer. “Fortunately,” he wrote, “I’m a patient man when it comes to things I care a lot about.”
Though Trump isn’t exactly known as an environmentalist, he sure sounded concerned about the critters’ fates in his book:
They had to be cared for, absolutely. We were entering their turf, and we wanted to make sure we found an equal or better environment for them. Safely relocating them became a priority. I learned a lot about gopher tortoises. For example, they have been known to dig burrows as long as 40 feet by 10 feet deep. Just imagine what that could do to a golf course! So while I admired the tortoises for their industry, they had to be carefully relocated.
It’s an amazing tale of largess and love of wild beasts from Trump — especially considering that his superyacht, the Trump Princess, reportedly came to him in 1988 with a master stateroom ceiling made of endangered tortoiseshell.
So… what ever happened to the Donald’s threatened golf-course reptiles? He didn’t say in his book.
But state records unearthed by Fusion show that just a few years after groundbreaking at the Trump International Palm Beach, the tortoises had mysteriously vanished, leaving no clue to their fate.
Had they died and been disposed of? Did they burrow over to the grounds of the adjacent county jail? Was there foul play involved? Fusion set to find out.
Slow-moving turtles, fast-moving deals
Until 2007, Florida allowed builders to apply for “incidental take permits” for gopher tortoises – permission to harm or kill the animals in the course of developing property. Frequently, the animals were “entombed” — buried alive. Developers would pay about $1,000 for that privilege; the fees were set aside for viable gopher tortoise habitats in other locations.
In a single year — 2006 — the state’s wildlife agency authorized entombment of 12,690 tortoises, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Alternately, builders could obtain permits to move the critters to designated relocation sites, which included public parks and private cattle ranches.
Trump, being Trump, apparently took another route. In December 1998, Palm Beach County — which owns the golf club’s land and leases it to Trump — amended its lease to let Trump take over an additional, tree-soaked 3.1 acre parcel between the golf course and the county’s main jail.
That piece of land had originally been set aside as a gopher tortoise preserve when the jail expanded in the early 90s, an internal county memo shows. For an extra $1,500 in annual rent, Trump would take control of that land — and with it, some tall responsibilities: “This area will remain a gopher tortoise preserve and will be maintained by Trump for this purpose and as additional buffer from the parking/jail,” the memo stated. “The lease requires Trump to be responsible for maintenance as well as for compliance with governmental requirements pertaining to the preserve.”
When the golf course opened in January 2000, everything seemed copacetic. Trump told a Palm Beach Post reporter about the tortoise kerfuffle: “I give the county commissioners a lot of credit. Once our differences were resolved, really the one thing they wanted to have was a great golf course.” Golf course designer Jim Fazio’s son spoke to the Post about the tortoises as if they were family pets: “We’re thinking about naming every one of them.”
And then they were gone
In 2002, with development raging across Florida, state officials moved to reclassify gopher tortoises as threatened, because their numbers had declined precipitously. By 2007, the state added stronger protections and stopped issuing incidental take permits.
As the tortoise population shrank, the Trump International Golf Club expanded, adding nine holes in 2006. Three years earlier, Trump’s golf course developers found more tortoises — as many as eight this time — and again, they were relocated onsite, according to Richard McCann, gopher tortoise permit coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
A year later, where there should have been 70 or so gopher tortoises, there were none.
In March 2007, Trump hired a local environmental consulting firm to survey his gopher tortoise preserve — a requirement under the state’s new, stricter rules. The survey sought, in part, “to determine the approximate population of gopher tortoises on site.”
It was a short survey.
“Three gopher tortoise burrows were located within the preserve area, all of which appear to be inactive,” the surveyors’ report stated.
Inspectors did not see any tortoises: “We located no signs of recent activity, such as fresh digging, scats, obvious gopher tortoise trails, signs of nesting or nest predation, or dead gopher tortoises or pieces of shells, bones, or other fragments. We noticed no commensal species or signs of their activity.
“It is questionable,” they concluded, “whether or not any individual gopher tortoises remain living in the burrows we located.”
The surveyors recommended that Trump set up time-lapse cameras to monitor for the animals; come up with an active maintenance plan for the habitat; cut back invasive plants; and avoid using herbicides in the area. It’s unclear if those measures were ever taken. The report added that inspections would “continue annually in perpetuity,” with results going to the relevant agencies. But Palm Beach County could provide no evidence of subsequent surveys.
Reached by phone, John Harris of Earth Advisors, the firm that conducted the 2007 survey, acknowledged that his company “continues to do environmental consulting for Mr. Trump.” But when asked about the fate of the tortoises, he declined further comment.
‘An absolute masterpiece’
No one who spoke to Fusion could shed any light on what happened to the tortoises on Trump’s rented golf-course preserve. It’s unlikely they could have migrated very far on the course without drawing attention; it’s less likely they would have passed beyond the course’s fenced boundaries, to the county jail and parking lot beyond. If they died, how? And what happened to their bodies?
Golf course architect Jim Fazio did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Trump International Palm Beach golf course administrators, several individuals involved with the course construction, or Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks.
Regardless of whether his tortoise-adoption plan was a success — and whether regulators might start asking pointed questions about it — Trump got one thing he wanted. “The end result is that the course is an absolute masterpiece,” he said in his book. “No other description does it justice.”
The club has expanded and now pays Palm Beach County about $922,000 per year in rent, and reportedly earns $13 million annually. Golfers who join pay a reported $250,000 for the initiation fee alone.
Trump went on to build 16 more golf courses around the world. “Each course came with its own set of challenges, but after tackling my first course, I was ready for them,” Trump recounted.
“Moving mountains? Moving tortoises? No problem.”
This story has been updated.