Gopher tortoises are threatened by the development boom

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Gopher tortoises often share their underground burrows with up to 400 other animals.
Cathy Salustri

If you’re new to Florida, you might think “gopher” refers to this small, furry, burrowing rodent. But here we usually hear our native turtle, Gopherus polyphemusor waffles.

These long-lived creatures inhabit Florida’s pine plains, areas coveted by developers who see the land as perfect for new subdivisions. Ground squirrels have lived in these undisturbed areas for millennia, but now they’re being evicted and, like humans looking for affordable housing, they’re struggling to relocate.

New resettlement guidelines

“In 2007, Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) did illegal to bury turtlessaid Elise Bennett at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in St. Petersburg. “but until then it allowed gophers to be buried alive in their burrows.”

The current concern is a new temporary executive order of the FWC suspending parts of the Florida gopher turtle relocation guidelines. Critics say it favors developers and doesn’t help gophers.

“It’s not good for the gophers,” said George Heinrich, executive director of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. “They often want to go back, especially if the new location is only a mile or two away; there is a possibility of illness – and that is just disruptive.

Heinrich, who tracks ground squirrels at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in South St. Pete, has studied these turtles for more than 30 years (10 as a ranger) and is considered an authority.

“Gophers are social and live in communities with multiple burrows,” he explained. “The males are fighting, and they’re actually communicating with a language that we can’t hear.”

Heinrich said this language, a kind of clicking sound, can be detected with special equipment.

Turtle habitat in decline

Turtles have already lost more than 80% of their natural habitat to sprawl and agriculture, leaving the rest of the fragmented habitat scattered across the species’ range. One of the main issues with the changed relocation guidelines is the distance, which has been increased from 50 miles to 100.

“It’s a big concern,” Bennett said, “because it means another climate that they may not be used to and they won’t thrive.”

And they allow “temporary” relocation, meaning they expect to move them again. Last year the FWC asked people to donate land to support turtle communities due to lack of suitable habitat.

You can still find gopher tortoises in a few places in Pinellas County.
Cathy Salustri

gopher turtles one Key species

Lest you think of gophers as just another creature, understand that they’re considered a “keystone” species, and the FWC says their burrows, which can be 15 feet long and six feet deep, provide a “temporary or permanent refuge” for as many as 350 to 400 species, even if the gopher tortoise is home. These tenants include gopher frogs, several species of snakes – including some species of concern, such as the eastern indigo snake, and burrowing owls.

In April 2021, the CBD sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not designating the turtle as endangered, despite admitting it needs government protected status.

“We’ve been trying for a long time to get endangered species status for gopher tortoises,” Bennett said. “The new temporary order does not take into account the space a turtle community needs…it is against expert advice.”

Visit the Gophers at Boyd Hill

Meanwhile, Heinrich is in the midst of the biennial gopher turtle census at Boyd Hill, where about 100 trained volunteers roam the park’s 150 acres to assess the health of the community.

“We count them every two years,” he said. “They like upland habitat, and you spot the burrows by a mound of sand with a hole…a large adult can have an opening of almost 10 inches.”

But never put your hand in a burrow, he warned, because you never know what’s inside. Rattlesnakes also use burrows as homes.

There are occasional solitary burrows but they are rare.

“There was a burrow on the St. Pete side of Clam Bayou about 10 years ago, but it’s been missing for a while,” Heinrich said. “Some people like to hurt them, but it’s illegal.”

Although gopher turtle communities are rare in overdeveloped Pinellas County, you can find them at Boyd Hill, Weedon Island, and Brooker Creek in North County. Offshore you can find them on Egmont Key.

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