On April 1, the Marco Island City Council proclaimed April 10 as “Gopher Tortoise Day,” with Chairman Erik Brechnitz reading the Proclamation “encouraging all citizens to protect this species.”
You may ask yourself, “Why does the gopher tortoise deserve its own day of recognition?” Here are a few reasons:
Gopher tortoises are Threatened in Florida and habitat loss is the primary cause for the species’ decline. In Marco Island, their numbers continue to decline due to high incidents of vehicular death and habitat loss due to a construction boom.
As a keystone species, gopher tortoise burrows provide refuge for more than 350 other species, called commensals. If all the gopher tortoises disappear from Marco Island, then many other threatened species may also disappear. Each burrow fills an important role in the local ecosystem.
Gopher tortoises (gopherus polyphemus) are ancient land tortoises that originated in western North America 60 million years ago. They are listed as a State Threatened species and are currently a candidate species for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing.
They are found in two residential neighborhoods in Marco Island. A larger population is found in sections of the Estates, Key Marco and a smaller population on a section of Spinnaker Drive and the west side of Hideaway Beach.
As the spring weather warms up in Marco Island, it will be easier to spot gopher tortoises foraging for food and also searching for a mate. Often times gopher tortoises may cross the road. If you see a tortoise on the road, you may pick it up and place it on the roadside in the direction it was heading — but only if it is safe for you do to so. Please do not put the tortoise in your vehicle. Also remember, the tortoises are land animal, so never attempt to put it into the water.
Jim Robellard of Ludlow Road expressed his concern that, “With the increased volume of construction traffic for both new homes and re-roofing jobs, the slow-moving tortoises are very much in danger.”
Due to its ESA status and state listing as threatened, Florida requires all properties with the presence of gopher tortoises to be surveyed prior to land clearing, grading or other site disturbance. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) gopher tortoise authorized agents, are the only individuals legally allowed to remove gopher tortoises from their burrows. These agents go through hundreds of hours of on the job training, learning how to safely capture and relocate gopher tortoises to specialized recipient sites.
How Can You Help?
- Look out for gopher tortoises crossing the road while driving.
- If you find an injured gopher tortoise, please call von Arx Wildlife Hospital at 239-262-2273.
- If you observe suspicious activity to gopher tortoises or its burrow, call FWC Wildlife Alert: 888-404-3922.
- If you observe construction activities or vehicles parked within 33 feet of a burrow (owl or gopher tortoises), call Marco Island Code Enforcement at 239-389-5050.