Thursday, December 9, 2021

Guest Commentary: Protect Our Tortoises – You Can Help



Marco Island offers a beautiful and diverse habitat that is home to many native species. Nearly everyone knows about the burrowing owls that live with us in our neighborhoods, but many may not be as familiar with our other burrowing animal – the gopher tortoise, a large, long-lived reptile. The life of a gopher tortoise revolves around a tunnel-like burrow that the tortoise excavates using its shovel-like front feet. Burrows can be up to 40 feet long and reach 10 feet in depth. Each burrow has a single opening, and the width of the burrow is approximately equal to the length of the tortoise.

After studying the decline in the Florida population of this tortoise, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has listed it as a Florida state-designated threatened species. This status means that “No person shall take, attempt to take, pursue, hunt, harass, capture, possess, sell or transport any gopher tortoise or parts thereof or their eggs, or molest, damage, or destroy gopher tortoise burrows, except as authorized by Commission permit or when complying with Commission approved guidelines for specific actions which may impact gopher tortoises and their burrows.” (Florida Administrative Code, Rule 68A-27.005)

Gopher tortoises are elusive, often building their burrows in brush covered areas that can make them difficult to see. These gentle tortoises travel about while foraging for food, often crossing roadways. Their slow speed makes them extremely vulnerable to cars and trucks. The Estates area has the largest concentration of tortoises on Marco Island. Lately, residents in that area are seeing tortoises hit by vehicles and left by the side of the road – a heartbreaking sight! With so much building going on, workers who may be unfamiliar with Marco’s unique wildlife should be reminded to slow down when seeing the “tortoise crossing” signs.

It is also important to remember that permits are required to relocate both burrowing owls and gopher tortoises from a lot before construction can begin. Report any concerns by calling (888) 404-FWCC (3922). If you find an injured gopher tortoise, contact the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples at (239) 262-CARE (2273). They can be reached from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. seven days a week. Let’s work together to keep our unique wildlife safe!

Charlette Roman


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