Hundreds of gopher tortoises are being relocated from south Florida to Santa Rosa County on the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base reservation, saving them from areas of imminent development and boosting the species’ population numbers in Northwest Florida.
In coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Eglin wildlife managers will accept at least 500 gopher tortoises over the next year with approximately half of them being placed on 100 acres in the western portion of the reservation beginning next week. The tortoises are coming from multiple sites from southern Florida.
“This relocation, and future ones, will significantly contribute to Eglin reaching its population goals as well as improving the species status range-wide; possibly eliminating the need for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Bruce Hagedorn, Eglin natural resources chief.
Gopher tortoises are dry-land turtles that usually live in relatively well-drained, sandy soils generally associated with longleaf pine and dry oak sandhills. The first 200-plus tortoises are scheduled to arrive at Eglin this week.
“By increasing our population sizes, we have the opportunity to potentially avoid listing, thereby maintaining greater flexibility for the mission, and eliminating the time and cost for consultations,” said Col. Craig Johnson, 96th Civil Engineer commander at Eglin.
“This directly benefits the DoD mission and reflects the Air Force goal of being excellent stewards of the environment,” Johnson said.
In portions of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the gopher tortoise is already listed as threatened under the ESA. In Florida, Georgia and most of south Alabama, the gopher tortoise is now a candidate species for possible listing later under the ESA.
According to Hagedorn, the tortoises will be located in areas not open to the public, but not on active test areas.
“We’ll ensure they’re in safe locations from missions as well as exposure to people recreating on the range,” said Hagedorn.
Eglin’s 464,000 acres consist of approximately 280,000 acres of suitable habitat for the gopher tortoise.
Gopher tortoises grow to be up to 15 inches long and weigh from eight to 15 pounds and can live up to 80 years in the wild.
With their strong elephant-like back legs and front feet specialized for digging, they are well-adapted to burrowing. The burrows provide gopher tortoises with protection from predators and from the elements by maintaining a fairly constant environment inside. They are most active in the warmer months but spend most of their lives in their burrows. Each tortoise will dig and use many burrows throughout the active season. The burrows can vary from three to 52 feet long and nine to 23 feet deep.
Their burrows also provide refuge for about 360 other species throughout its range. Some of those species include pine snakes, gopher frogs, Florida mice, foxes, skunks, opossums, rabbits, quail, armadillos, burrowing owls, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and many invertebrates.