Published: September 14, 2014
TAMPA — A lot of attention gets paid to the sleek and proud Florida panther in its struggle to overcome the odds of survival in a shrinking habitat. And people love the West Indian manatee, a roly-poly caricature of an underwater W.C. Fields.
Not so much love is given to the grizzled gopher tortoise, whose head looks like a craggy rock with eyes.
Still, there is a fascination there with this threatened reptile.
“Most people want to do something to help gopher tortoises in Florida,” said Deborah Burr, coordinator of the state’s Gopher Tortoise Conservation Program. “This to me is very encouraging for the future of this native Florida reptile.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees the program, gets hundreds of calls a week about the slow-moving tortoises, known in scientific circles as Gopherus polyphemus. The tortoises have been munching greens in Florida for millions of years, but seven years ago gopher tortoises were declared a threatened species. Both the animal and its burrow are protected under state law.
The reason is a familiar chorus in Florida: Humans are taking over much of the gopher tortoise environment and plowing under those crescent-shaped burrows that also serve as homes for hundreds of other species.
Burr has been overseeing the state’s gopher tortoise protection efforts for seven years.
“This is a funny job,” she said. “I really love it. Gopher tortoises are just an intriguing species. They’ve been around 60 million years and here they are. It’s amazing to see how they adapt over time and still survive.”
The commission’s gopher protection plan, which undergoes review about every year, is being tweaked now, and the state is in the process of taking public comment. The proposal is expected to be presented to the full commission in February.
The plan includes guidelines for landowners whose property contains gopher tortoises, habitat acquisition plans and permitting guidelines. Current rules require builders to get permits to relocate any tortoises — which can live for more than 60 years — found on property about to be developed. Most of those regulations won’t change much.
Among the proposed changes are rules that would eliminate the 1,000-acre minimum standard for new relocation sites, require permitted gopher tortoise relocation sites to include a strategy to deal with multiple tortoise deaths and add a time frame for experience to obtain state certification to handle gopher tortoises.
Burr is working more than ever with state parks, the forestry service and private land owners to save the species and its habitat. There are 28 sites, both public and private, across the state that are designated as relocation sites, and more are being sought. Owners who seek relocation designation forfeit the right to future development, but can, in most cases, continue to cut timber and graze cattle. There are financial incentives as well, she said. And gopher tortoises benefit their environment.
According to the Defenders of Wildlife, when feeding, gopher tortoises only prune the plants they eat, typically leaving a healthy plant ready to regrow new leaves.
Seeds go through the tortoise and sprout elsewhere in its home range afterward.
Other species rely on their burrows.
Biologists say gopher tortoise burrows are regular country inns and can be home to more than 350 species of animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. If gopher tortoises disappear, so will their burrows and thus the habitat of all those other creatures.
A 2006 biological status report estimated there might be 400,000 gopher tortoises wandering around Florida, half of what the population was in the 1920s, when their numbers began to decline.
Because they are slow to reproduce, and even though there is plenty of suitable habitat in North Florida, gopher tortoise numbers never returned to what they were.
“Populations in the Panhandle,” the report said, “likely are still recovering from the heavy harvest of adults for food during and after the Great Depression.”
Naturally, people root for an underdog, and Floridians try to help gopher tortoises at every turn, whether it’s helping them cross roads or moving them from the path of heavy equipment. Unless the beasts are in danger, though, people should leave them alone.
The commission “understands that people’s compassion for wildlife can be a wonderful conservation tool, however sometimes a person’s actions can result in a negative impact on the individual or species of interest,” the state guidelines say. “When encountering a gopher tortoise, the best option is to leave the tortoise where it is found.”
Can a homeowner live with a gopher tortoise in the back yard?
“Yes,” Burr said with enthusiasm. “Gopher tortoises and humans have coexisted for a long time.” She said the state encourages all homeowners with gopher tortoises nearby to observe, learn and enjoy “the front-row seat to nature.”
The plodding reptiles are found in all 67 Florida counties. They like sandhill, scrub and pine flat woods, dry prairies and coastal dunes.
Conservation efforts on behalf of gopher tortoises have increased significantly in Florida since the first management plan was put in place in 2007, and more and more permits are being pulled to relocate gopher tortoises from areas that are being developed. From July 2009 to July 2010, 314 permits were pulled. From July 2013 to July 2014, 683 were issued.
Gopher tortoises could benefit at the polls Nov. 4, when Florida voters cast ballots on Amendment 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that, if passed, would broaden the scope of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.
The amendment calls for dedicating 33 percent of documents taxes, mostly from real estate sales, to help acquire and improve conservation land and corridors, which could mean more money for gopher tortoise habitat restoration and maintenance.
Julie Morris, a consultant who works with Wildlands Conservation of Venice and who instructs a class on how to become state certified gopher tortoise handler, has had a long-time interest in the species.
“I think they are the poster child for human/wildlife conflicts in Florida,” she said. “They like to live and make burrows where we like to live. The gopher tortoise serves as the face of that conflict.”
Saving the species will require cooperation from many people, she said, including the state, conservationists, county governments and private landowners; developers and ranchers; farmers and timber companies.
But, she said, things are looking up.
“In the past the agricultural and conservation communities were at odds,” she said, “and now that has shifted. They are working together.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said, “since the early days.”