Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided not to list the gopher tortoise as federally threatened or endangered in nearly all Southern states where they reside, upsetting many in the wildlife conservation community. Only a tiny area—26,740 acres west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in Alabama—federally lists the species as threatened.
This action prompted the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Nokuse Education to file a notice of intent to sue the USFWS in March of this year. According to CBD, the reptiles have lost 97% of the longleaf pine savannas in the Southern United States, where they have lived for millions of years.
The primary threat to the gopher tortoise is habitat loss due to land development. The urban sprawl of Central Florida, in particular, is seeing more houses built in the same high, dry habitats that the tortoise prefers. By some estimates, the gopher tortoise can lose nearly all of its Southern habitat in the next 80 years. And while the reptile is not listed federally as endangered or threatened, many southern states, including Florida, have listed it as such.
The ancient animal’s best chance for survival until the lawsuit’s resolution hinges on human assistance. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) offers excellent information on how essential gopher tortoises are to Florida’s land and its people and how you can help these gentle creatures.
The Benefit of Tortoises
The gopher tortoise is essential to Florida’s ecological community because of its feeding patterns and burrowing activity. Their burrows, extending 30 feet underground, also support roughly 360 other species. Animals such as burrowing owls, mice, indigo snakes, rabbits, gopher frogs, and other invertebrates use active or abandoned gopher tortoise burrows. In the wild, gopher tortoises live about 40 years. They spread seeds and spores for many native plants, trees, and fungi needed to maintain Florida’s natural ecosystems.
Gopher tortoises are also considered critical to the calcium cycle of our soil. Fewer gopher tortoises could mean lower nutrients in the dirt, an increase in land erosion, and a decrease in water filtration.
Know the Law
Florida law prohibits anyone from killing or wounding a gopher tortoise. Violating the law is a third-degree felony and is punishable by up to five years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both. It is illegal to take tortoises, which includes harm, harassment, capture, possession, selling, transporting, or damaging a burrow (including both tortoises and their eggs).
If gopher tortoise burrows are on your property, you may need a burrow survey or permit to do extensive digging or development. While the FWC staff does not relocate tortoises for private citizens, developers, or governments, it issues licenses to authorized gopher tortoise agents who specialize in safely capturing, marking, and relocating gopher tortoises.
For regular yard maintenance and landscaping that does not harm tortoise burrows, all landowners must do is avoid burrows and tortoises by at least 25 feet.
How to Help
Here are some tips from FWC on how you can help Florida’s gopher tortoises:
- If you see a tortoise on the road, feel free to help it continue its journey by moving it across in the direction it was heading. However, never compromise your safety for this task; remember not to take the tortoise with you.
- Never put these terrestrial species in ditches or water, including canals, creeks, ponds, rivers, etc.
- If you see a sick or injured tortoise, call the FWC regional office for the Central Florida area at (352) 732-1225.
- Become a tortoise volunteer. The FWC is always in search of community help.
- Report wildlife law violations to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert 24-hour, state-wide hotline 888-404-3922.