Gopher Tortoise Day Brings Awareness To Their Importance

by SC Reporter Reanna Haase

Gopher tortoise. SC photo by Kyle Sweet

The Florida Gopher Tortoise Day was on April 10 and since Sanibel has a large gopher tortoise population, this day serves as a way to bring awareness to the species.

Gopher tortoises are protected in Florida because this species helps to show ecosystem health. Rachel Rainbolt, conservation officer for the Sanibel Natural Resources Department, said the presence of gopher tortoises shows good ecosystem health, as well as the absence of them showing poor health.

“Gopher tortoises are what are known as a keystone species, so they provide some kind of benefit to the environment,” Rainbolt said.

Rainbolt said gopher tortoises spend about 80 percent of their lifetime in their burrows, but other animals also benefit from these burrows. The main contribution they provide to the ecosystem is their burrows. Since they may have many burrows in their lifetime, when a tortoise abandons a burrow, this provides a home for another animal.

“Some of the animals on Sanibel that benefit from (gopher tortoise burrows) would be the endangered eastern indigo snake, we have gopher frogs, the Florida mouse, and other species of snakes. Then over across the (San Carlos) Bay in Cape Coral they even provide homes for burrowing owls,” Rainbolt said.

The presence of gopher tortoises can also show good ecosystem health because this means the upland vegetation that enables a balanced ecosystem is also present. You can encourage the traffic of gopher tortoises on your property by planting vegetation they enjoy.

“Gopher tortoises being designed the way they are, they’re a low ground dwelling tortoise. They are not necessarily going to be grazing on high growing trees, and so the type of vegetation you’re going to look for is going to be low-growing vegetation,” Rainbolt said.

This vegetation can include scorpion tail, grandma grass, love grass, Spanish needle and many more. The presence of gopher tortoises on a plot of land may also cause some issues for people who are looking to build due to them being a protected species.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website, the state requires anyone looking to build on a property that may have a potentially occupied gopher tortoise burrow obtain a permit. These burrows can be identified by their half-moon shape, rather than the more circular shape that an armadillo or iguana burrow may have.

“For more of a solid confirmation on the type of burrow that they have on their property, residents can always contact the natural resources department. We have three FWC authorized gopher tortoise agents that can help assist in that evaluation process,” Rainbolt said.

If there are any questions about the burrows on your property, the city has resources for gopher tortoises. Although the main threat to gopher tortoises is their homes being destroyed, invasive species also could potentially pose a threat to them.

“One of the challenges with exotic species such as iguanas is they end up potentially displacing species of native and protected wildlife. So, in this case, there is a possibility of competition depending on access to resources,” Rainbolt said.

The City of Sanibel is not overly concerned with the effect iguanas have on gopher tortoises as they have not had much of an impact thus far. The goal of Florida Gopher Tortoise Day is to bring awareness to the species, with their nesting season coming up being informed on their habits is important.

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