We live in a beautiful county and state, surrounded by lush growth with several different types of environments that are home to many varieties of wildlife. Because we have an appreciation for our local environment, most of us try to coexist in ways that don’t harm the critters around us. There’s also the other group; the ones that purposely try to run over a tortoise crossing the road as though that animal had somehow, personally, threatened the driver.
Let’s start with the gopher tortoise, native to the southeastern United States, including Florida. You’ve probably noticed the signs warning that a particular area is a known path for the tortoise to cross the road because those signs are posted about the tortoises on Marco Island.
A gopher tortoise is designated a “Keystone” species because it digs burrows that provide shelter for at least 360 other animal species, including rabbits, burrowing owls, snakes, armadillos, lizards, quail, frogs and toads and about 350 more. Because of the keystone designation, gopher tortoises are a federally protected species. Florida regulations state clearly that it is illegal to handle or disturb gopher tortoises or to bother their burrows.
Predators include armadillos, fire ants, snakes, hawks, but human interference via habitat destruction is probably the most intrusive. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are four options to consider when gopher tortoises are on property to be developed:
1. Avoid development.
2. Avoid destruction of the burrow.
3. Relocate tortoise burrow on site (permit required).
4. Relocate tortoise burrow off site (permit required).
Permits are $300, the cost to relocate a tortoise can vary, but it could cost $500 for catching, transporting and releasing the animal, and a $1,000 payment to the owner of the relocation site. That speaks volumes about the value of this tortoise! It takes them 10 to 25 years to reach sexually maturity (imagine if that was us!) and when mature, the females lay three to 15 eggs compared to the loggerhead sea turtle, that lays 80 to 100 eggs, up to three times per year. And yes, the loggerheads have their challenges too.
Warning! Gopher tortoises do NOT swim. Some well-meaning citizens have taken them to ponds and placed them in the water, where they promptly sink and perish. Don’t think you can take that tortoise home, it’s illegal. Besides, how would you feel if an identified, threatened critter died on your watch?
Their diet is varied and includes grasses of many varieties and about 200 varieties of plants within the habitat where they live. Corn, beans, leafy vegetables, most fruits, flowers including dandelions and other weeds. Prickly pear cactus pads, pine needles and shrubs are also on their varied diets. They need water, but rarely are seen drinking from a pond or river. Rather they use their thick, strong legs to dam the water that runs down into their burrow during a rain or they can take water from the plants during the dry season.
Seriously, can’t we be more tolerant and share our environment? Who was here first? Not us. The ancestry of the gopher tortoise dates back 50 million years. Yes, there’s development going on all around us, but we can make accommodations that will reach a hand across the burrow, the forest or the Gulf to “share the road.”
More info on our endangered animals coming up soon. Have a wonderful holiday filled with love and acceptance.
Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!