Thursday, October 28, 2021

Survey and New Gopher Tortoise Sign to Protect the Species

Photos by Jim Robellard | 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—only if it is safe to do to so. Please do not put the tortoise in your vehicle. Tortoises are land animals, so never attempt to put it into the water.

Marco’s Beach and Coastal Resource Advisory of Marco Island (BACR), has recently partnered with the Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE) to initiate a field study and survey for threatened gopher tortoise population in Marco Island. This is part of a conservation partnership similar to the Owl Watch Marco program. BACR has been discussing this initiative for the last two years. 

According to AWE, “this initial surveying” is the first phase of a broader gopher tortoise conservation and stewardship program. They hope to include collecting research data; identify policy guidelines and develop educational materials for the gopher tortoise. 

It is a slow-moving survey that started in the last quarter of 2019. 15+ gopher tortoise burrows have been surveyed representing a very small sampling. With most of the burrows on vacant lots, the Gopher Tortoise survey team needed to get permission from landowners for areas they suspect have burrows.  

Gopher tortoises are found in two residential neighborhoods in Marco Island. Larger populations are 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 part of this survey initiative, BACR ordered 100 new gopher tortoise DO NOT DISTURB signs to replace many of the faded signs found at the entrance to the gopher tortoise burrows. Many signs were also damaged by Hurricane Irma. 

Photos by Jim Robellard | Gopher Tortoise burrows can extend to a depth of 7 feet and a length of 15 feet underground with only one entrance. The top of the burrow is domed or arched shaped and a layer of dirt is tossed in a fan-out way from the entrance called an apron.

The new signs were approved in July 2019 by City Manager David Harden and were paid for from BACR’s FY19 budget. The design and language of the new sign were also approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). 

The new sign states: “GOPHER TORTOISES ARE PROTECTED. It is illegal to take, harm, harass, impact this animal, eggs, young, and/or burrow without a permit. Violation of Florida Administrative Code 68A-27 and Marco Island City Code Chapter 18, Article V may result in physical arrest, 60 days in jail, and up to $5,500.00 in fines. If destruction or harassment is observed, please call 239-389-5050 or 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).” 

Due to its state threatened status, Florida requires all properties with the presence of gopher tortoises to be surveyed prior to land clearing, grading or other site disturbance. 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. 

In addition to State protection, gopher tortoises in Marco Island are protected under its new protected species ordinance which was approved by City Council on January 7, 2019. Though the $5,000 maximum fine possibility is not INSIGNIFICANT, there will be offenders that will remain intent on taking shortcuts when developing their property. 

The primary threat to the gopher tortoises in Marco Island is habitat destruction and lack of appropriate management which contributes to its population decline. Additional threats include increased vehicular traffic which leads to increased risk of road mortality.  

How Can You Help? 

  • Look out for gopher tortoises crossing the road while driving. 
  • Don’t throw gopher tortoises in the water – they are land turtles and can’t swim. 
  • 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 or MIPD’s non-emergency No. 239-389-5050. 


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