If you spend any time wandering around the wilds or even the more rural neighborhoods in Southwest Florida, you have probably seen gopher tortoises. In some areas, they’re actually fairly abundant. Upland sandy habitat, which is usually dominated by palmetto and longleaf pine or scrubby oaks, supports dense populations of these reptiles — as many as one per acre.
But this habitat is becoming endangered here. During much of the 1900s, inland Florida real estate was mostly valued for non-intensive agriculture — namely, cattle ranching. Most ranchers raised their animals on unimproved or partially improved pasture, meaning that the natural character of the land was at least partially preserved. Native plant and animal communities thrived. Even in orange groves, there was usually enough wild growth to support a few tortoises and other creatures.
Now agriculture is falling away as the driver of Florida’s economy. In its place we have the development of residential homesites, and here there is very little room for any wilderness. Homeowners, most of whom move here from somewhere else, are generally unimpressed by palmetto, prickly pear and pawpaw. Instead they plant lawns, hibiscus and palm trees from Madagascar. In these trimmed and sterilized yards, where butterflies are welcome but not caterpillars, untidy gopher tortoise burrows are certainly not acceptable.
Without the tortoises, a whole host of other species will have a tough time surviving. You see, gopher tortoises are in the construction business themselves. Their burrows, which can be as much as 12 feet deep and extend more than 40 feet long, are really condominium units that are vital for many more species than just the tortoises themselves. More than 250 other animals have been documented using active or abandoned tortoise burrows, including gray foxes, spotted skunks, cottontail rabbits, Florida woodrats, southern toads, gopher frogs, burrowing owls and endangered eastern indigo snakes.
Even if their habitat is not directly destroyed, people moving into the neighborhood is not good news for the tortoises. These animals sometimes range up to a quarter-mile from their burrows in search of preferred seasonal foods — blackberries and prickly pears fruits, for example, or certain types of mushroom. Their foraging often takes them across roads, which are very dangerous for obvious reasons. Although many motorists will stop for them, it’s an unfortunate truth that others will go out of their way to run them over for sick sport.
If you spot one crossing, you can legally carry the tortoise across the road. It may flail its legs, but it won’t bite (the same can’t be said for aquatic turtles, so watch yourself). Always put it down in the same direction it was going. If you take it back where it came from, it will almost certainly attempt to cross again.
Even if the area has heavy traffic, don’t take the tortoise with you or move it to a different area. That’s possession, and since gopher tortoises are designated as threatened in Florida, you could face criminal prosecution. After all, it’s hard to tell whether you’re truly trying to be helpful or just harvesting a Hoover chicken (their Depression-era nickname) for the pot. Besides, tortoises have strong homing instincts and will try to return to where they came from — probably having several roads to cross on the way.
Some tortoises are killed with kindness. A few years ago, I had to stop a well-meaning woman who was just about to toss a gopher tortoise into the Cocoplum Waterway. Just because it has a shell doesn’t mean it can swim. Gophers are heavily built and sink to the bottom. Maybe it would have been able to hold its breath long enough to crawl to the bank, but maybe not. Other tortoises have been tossed into the sea by tourists who somehow believed they were sea turtles. That’s a sad end to a life that can be more than 120 years long. Here’s a good rule: If it doesn’t have flippers, it’s not a sea turtle. You’re welcome.
Not too many years ago, it was common practice for builders to simply ignore tortoise burrows, grading over them and then sealing in the occupants as they laid concrete or asphalt (allegedly there are several dozen gophers entombed beneath the Port Charlotte Town Center mall). But in these enlightened times, developers must now relocate tortoises. Sounds good — but remember that homing instinct? Many fall victim to vehicles as they try to get back to their old burrows. Also, most areas of suitable habitat already have tortoises. Simply cramming more of them in means they’ll all suffer.
If you live in Southwest Florida, there’s a good chance gopher tortoises were evicted to make room for you. But you don’t need to feel too guilty, because there are ways you can make it up to them. Plant native in your yard. The maintenance is easier and you’ll attract all sorts of wildlife to your place. If you can convince your neighbors to do the same, it’ll work even better. Be sure to include low-growing forage species, such as gopher apple and perennial peanut.
Take your fence down, or at least leave a crawlspace the tortoises can fit through. And don’t let your dogs run around unsupervised. Even small dogs can maim or kill gopher tortoises. I once knew a cocker spaniel that seemed to delight in chewing up young ones that still had pliable shells.
Invite the tortoises back home, let them dig their burrows, and they’ll bring their friends. Then you won’t have to travel far to experience wild Florida. You’ll just have to open your back door.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.