Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Help Needed to Count Gopher Tortoises

Photo by Jim Robellard | Gopher tortoises have been a part of Marco Island’s culture and are important to our environment.


At the November meeting of the Beach & Coastal Resources Advisory Committee (BACR), Brittany Piersma of the Marco Gopher Tortoise Research Program spoke of her role in the ongoing survey of gopher tortoises in Marco Island. Brittany is a Program Biologist working for the Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE). 

Photo by Jean Hall | Nancy Ritchie, consultant to the Gopher Tortoise Research Project, and Brittany Piersma, Program Biologist for the survey, checking out a gopher tortoise habitat.

Marco’s BACR partnered with AWE to initiate a field study and survey for the gopher tortoise population on Marco Island. This is a conservation partnership similar to the Owl Watch Program of Marco.  

Nancy Ritchie, former Environmental Specialist for Marco Island, and now with the Island Environmental and Marine Serviceswill be working with Brittany as a consultant to the gopher tortoise survey.  

Nancy spoke of Brittany’s passion and determination in working with gopher tortoisesand sometimes it means crawling through thick brush of Brazilian Peppers to access burrow locations. According to Ritchie, in protecting the gopher tortoise habitat we are also protecting an entire ecosystem that depends on the gopher tortoise burrows. 

Ritchie added that it is important to protect the gopher tortoisenot because they are fun to watch and wonderful to have in our neighborhood, but because they have been part of Marco Island culture and an important part of our environment. The Marco Island Historical Museum has a section displaying Calusa artifactand gopher tortoise bones.



Submitted Photos | A very young gopher tortoise!

Both Ritchie and Piersma have stated that its important to determine the population of gopher tortoises in Marco Island as part of a comprehensive land study. The City has provided Piersma with a list of about 1000 properties and she has sent out letters to most of the owners.  

The problem is the lack of responses. Piersma needs permission or approval from property owners with gopher tortoises to access their properties. Most of the properties are on vacant lots.  

Piersma wants to make it clear to property owners that the main part of the survey is just counting burrowsto get a general population count. This will go a long way to conserve the species. 

Both are appealing to all Marco property owners with a possible gopher tortoise on their property. According to Ritchie, sometimes when you receive a letter which says “you might have a listed species on your property, that might cause some fear in some property owners. The survey benefits the property owner as a prospective seller, as Ritchie put it. This is good information to haveand if you want to build on your vacant lotthere is a process and owners can have this information handy.  

As Piersma goes through the survey process, she has met so many enthusiastic and receptive residents. She is a great ambassador of the species as she talks to residents and property owners one on oneand even to people passing byshe is constantly educating them on the importance of protecting the gopher tortoises on Marco Island.


Do You Have Gopher Tortoises or Burrows on Your Property?  

Please Allow Audubon of the Western Everglades and their volunteers to check your burrow sites. Please email and a letter will be sent to you for your approval. 



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