If you’ve ever encountered one of their characteristic burrows (perhaps, unfortunately, even in your yard), you may be familiar with the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Gopher tortoises are the only tortoise found in the southeastern United States and are easily distinguishable from box turtles (the only other terrestrial turtle in the region). They are a moderate-size turtle, averaging 9-15 inches in length, and are characterized by their strong, stumpy feet that they use to dig their extensive burrows (averaging 15 feet long and 6.5 feet deep) in scrub, sandhills, dunes, and other upland habitats throughout the southeast. What you may not know, however, is that gopher tortoises are important ecosystem engineers – their burrows provide habitat for hundreds of other species such as the indigo snake, gopher frog, pine snake, diamondback rattlesnake, and burrowing owl. Because of this, the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species and is afforded some protections. It is currently a state-threatened species in Florida and federally-threatened in Alabama west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers and in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Gopher tortoises and their eggs and burrows are protected by state law, Chapter 68A – 27.003, FL Administrative Code, which prohibits the take, molestation, or harassment of tortoises and their nests unless authorized by a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) permit. This means that you cannot disturb burrows, or any land within 25 feet of a burrow (even if it’s in your yard!). There are exceptions, of course, for agriculture, silviculture, and wildlife habitat improvement activities. Most typical lawn maintenance activities also do not require a permit as long as they do not harm a burrow or tortoise. If clearing for development is set to occur within 25 feet of an active burrow, however, an Authorized Gopher Tortoise Agent must conduct a formal burrow survey on your property and you must apply for a relocation permit – either a 10 or Fewer Burrows Permit or a Conservation Permit (for more than 10 burrows). Once FWC approves the permit, the authorized agent can then excavate the burrows and relocate the tortoises to a suitable on-site habitat that will remain undisturbed (if available) or to an off-site gopher tortoise recipient site.
Gopher tortoises are in decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation. They need large areas of undeveloped land with sandy soils, plenty of upland herbaceous forage, and sparse canopy cover. Proximity to human development reduces habitat available to build their burrows and limits their ability to forage for food. Edge effects along the human-wildland edge lead to thick patches of unfavorable vegetation and increased exposure to predators associated with human activity, such as raccoons (which will snack on gopher tortoise eggs) and even your pet cat or dog (which may eat the young). Proximity to development also means proximity to roads – vehicular mortality is the number one cause of death of adult gopher tortoises.
Disruption of the natural fire regime due to development in much of the gopher tortoise’s habitat is also problematic. Fire is important because it thins out the canopy and dense woody brush and allows for herbaceous vegetation that provides food for the gopher tortoise. Prescribed burning (or mowing and thinning in areas where burning is too risky) can substitute for the natural fire regime, but many natural areas around development are left untouched and the vegetation gets too dense. On top of reducing habitat for gopher tortoises, this build up of dense vegetation also increases risk of dangerous crown fires.
So how can you help?
If you are a homeowner and have gopher tortoises in and/or around your property:
- Leave burrows alone! If you have any proposed development activities within 25 feet of a burrow, contact your local Extension office or the FWC gopher tortoise conservation biologist in your area for guidance on what to do.
- HOA rules permitting, you can landscape for gopher tortoises. Grow native plants that provide food for gopher tortoises. They like a variety of plants such as prickly pear, gopher apple, wild grape, blackberry, blueberry, and broadleaf grasses. This guide to gopher tortoise-friendly plants has more information.
- Avoid mowing, driving, or other activities that could cause a disturbance directly around the burrow. You can trim grass or weeds around the burrow using a weed trimmer.
- Don’t leave pets unsupervised near burrows.
If you are a landowner with suitable gopher tortoise habitat on your property:
- Practice good habitat management for gopher tortoises. Regular prescribed burning and tree thinning can help provide the open habitat that gopher tortoises need. Check out FWC’s landowners guide here.
- You may qualify to serve as a gopher tortoise recipient site for tortoises that have to be relocated. There is financial incentive for receiving tortoises. More information here.
- Interested in conserving gopher tortoise habitat? USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) offers technical and financial assistance. For more information, check out the NRCS gopher tortoise webpage or contact your local USDA Service Center or county Extension office. FWC’s Landowner Assistance Program may also provide cost-share opportunities.
If you see gopher tortoises out and about:
- Be on the lookout for gopher tortoises while driving and observe speed limits, particularly if you see a wildlife crossing sign.
- If you see a gopher tortoise on the road, pick it up and move it out of the road in the direction the tortoise was moving. Do NOT take it with you or move it somewhere else.
- Use the Gopher Tortoise Smartphone App to report any gopher tortoises you encounter.
- If you suspect that someone has unlawfully destroyed or harmed a gopher tortoise or its burrow, report it to FWC’s toll-free Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922 or text Tip@MyFWC.com.
- If you find a sick or injured tortoise, call 1-850-921-1030 on weekdays from 8 am to 5 pm. After hours, you can report it to FWC’s toll-free Wildlife Alert hotline or text Tip@MyFWC.com.
- If you find a dead tortoise, report it here. Do not take any remains.
And if you want to get involved in gopher tortoise conservation:
- There are some volunteer opportunities available with FWC. These include waif tortoise transportation (very limited), silt fence installation on relocation sites, and gopher tortoise surveys and relocations on sites that have an Incidental Take Permit (old permits that basically allowed the burrows on development sites to be filled without relocation efforts – these permits are no longer issued but there are some old ones that are still valid). More information here.
- Participate in gopher tortoise education and outreach. Materials/ideas here.
- Join the Gopher Tortoise Council.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways you can get involved to help save gopher tortoises. If you have any questions or want to talk tortoise, feel free to shoot me an email at email@example.com.