P.A.W.S. - Peoples Alliance for Wildlife Survival
Gopher Tortoise Relocation Program
Gopherus polyphemus
The GOPHER TORTOISE, (Gopherus polyphemus) - It's not very cute, not  furry, not particularly pretty to look at, not even very sociable. So why all the fuss to conserve these things? I know what you're thinking. You'd rather devote your time and resources working to save cute and cuddly- looking bear cubs, or maybe baby raccoons or rabbits. BUT A TURTLE?

Well, first off, they're not turtles - they're tortoises. And their survival is extremely important to many other indigenous Florida wildlife species. Here are some important facts.
The gopher tortoise can live to be 65 years old. Both the male and female of the species can take between five and ten years to reach reproductive maturity. The female nests one time each year under ideal conditions and lay an average of six eggs.  It is believed that on average, two of the six hatchlings will fall victim to natural predators, raccoons, etc., and that two of the remaining four hatchlings will not otherwise reach reproductive maturity, due in large part to narrowing habitat, particularly the addition of roads that segment their habitat. It is impossible to know exactly how many Gopher tortoises die each day on Florida roadways, but it is clear by the decline in Florida populations, that more are being killed than are being replaced.

An adult gopher tortoise will inhabit several burrows over its lifetime, however, it may choose to inhabit the same burrow for several years if undisturbed, and if environmental conditions are favorable. A typical burrow, like the one pictured above, will have an opening the width of which indicates the approximate length of its inhabitant. This gives the tortoise room to turn around in any part of the burrow.

Burrows are typically less than four feet deep and ten feet in length, but there have been burrows recorded that were up to ten feet deep and forty-five feet long.  Since tortoises are reptiles, and cold blooded, their burrow is instrumental in providing refuge and stable temperature environment in cold weather. It is equally important as refuge from extreme temperatures in the summer months. That said, the gopher tortoise's burrow is also very important to other species. Several species of mice will share the tortoises burrow, as will the GOPHER FROG. In the absence of these two visitors, one might expect to find other tenants, including the threatened INDIGO SNAKE, and the EASTERN DIAMONDBACK RATTLESNAKE.

Tortoises are very strategic about their burrow locations. The soil must drain well, comprised of approximately 50% sand. The entrance will preferably be shaded and somewhat concealed by vegetation, and they will typically face to the east for morning sun and to avoid direct afternoon sun. They are most often constructed into the side of a bank, not at the foot of the bank which would invite flooding,

Another very important consideration is ground cover. The Gopher tortoise is no acrobat. Its body design is not conducive to travel over obstacles like overgrown vegetation. Likewise, a location without significant tree canopy is desirable. A perfect burrow location will combine these dry, sunny, open-canopy conditions with immediately available lush and shaded areas to necessitate successful foraging and a consistent drinking water source. A gopher tortoise is also known to "home-in" on its burrow location, allowing it to forage for a considerable distance and return. This is one factor that makes off-site relocation somewhat difficult, as a relocated tortoise will instinctively attempt to return to its previous burrow. They have been known to travel for miles to accomplish this.

The type of burrow discussed here is often the product of land that routinely undergoes the process of "controlled burning". This process helps hold down ground vegetation in sandy areas immediately around the burrow opening, and it promotes lush re-growth in adjacent foraging areas. These same controlled burns would kill other exposed wildlife if not for the gopher tortoise burrow, During controlled burns, and naturally occurring fires, small wildlife is often seen running toward the line of fire instead of away from it. This is because during a forest fire, many small wildlife species take emergency refuge in the gopher tortoise's burrow. Rabbits, opossum, raccoons, lizards, frogs, mice, crickets, carrion, chipmunks, squirrels and snakes, all share the burrow as emergency refuge, and emerge after the danger passes. Without these burrows, many small wildlife species would perish. Additionally, the gopher tortoise is largely responsible for perpetual distribution of many species of indigenous plant seeds, distributed in its droppings, making it one of the forests most prolific farmers.

Ample food supply is also critical. The gopher tortoise enjoys a diverse variety of indigenous grasses, plants, fruits, etc. They particularly enjoy seasonal fruits, peaches, plums, and even citrus. In Florida, typical gopher tortoise diet can consist of wild petunia, alligator weed, dandelions, daisies, ragweed, heliotrope, pigeon plums, wireweed, prickly pear cactus, pawpaws, gopher apples, muscadines, scuppernongs, persimmons, blackberries, gallberry, milkweed, saw palmetto, scrub palmetto, palm berries, Spanish moss, various low-growth mosses and airplants.

By far, the greatest current threat to the gopher tortoise is the loss of its habitat to new human development. In Florida, it is unlawful to harm this "protected" species. The law defines damage to the tortoises burrow as the same as damage to the animal itself. So, how can we coexist? There are several varying opinions on this. Some believe it best to mitigate the issue by limiting development to within twenty-five feet of an active burrow. Others believe that it is appropriate to relocate the animal elsewhere on the property being developed. This is often impractical because many of Florida's building lots are very small, particularly given the tortoises propensity to "home" back to its original burrow site. Still others believe that relocating the tortoises off-site, to a pre-approved and pre-prepared location offers the greatest results. Some pitfalls to the latter include, interference with existing colonies, inbreeding, gene pool, spread of disease, etc. So, what is the answer? We believe the answer lies in carefully considered use and/or combination of these three methods, on a case-by-case basis, always giving highest consideration to the well-being of the protected species, while maintaining realistic views about inevitable development.



PERMIT BOARD
Active Gopher tortoise burrow 12' away.
In the photo to the left, you can see a good example of how development is encroaching on habitat. A permit board has been installed on this 1/4 acre building lot in North Central Florida. There is an active burrow only 12' from the permit board, and only 4' from the edge of the road where the driveway will likely be established. If not protected, this burrow will be crushed under the weight of heavy equipment, or driven over by vehicles carrying various contractors and subcontractors. The lot is probably too small for "on-site" relocation. An immediate effort can and should be made to clearly mark the burrow so that it is not disturbed during the land-clearing process, but, a more permanent solution is likely necessary in this case.

This burrow may be a candidate for "off-site" relocation. The first objective should be to install (4) 4' wood stakes in a 25' perimeter in every direction around the burrow. The stakes should not be driven in more than 12", leaving 36" exposed, then a high-visibility flagging tape should be stretched around the tops of each stake to close the entire area. A weatherproof sign on all (4) sides of the tape should read: PROTECTED GOPHER TORTOISE - DO NOT DISTURB.  Now , what about the "off-site" relocation?            
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT RELOCATION OPTIONS, including one that PAWS will never consider.
This page was last updated: April 16, 2013