What started as one man’s interest in our Gopher Tortoise survey, led to a decision that would protect at least 26 tortoises and their habitat for the rest of their lives.
My name is Brittany Piersma and I currently work as a field biologist under Audubon Western Everglades. We are pursuing a critical study. Every week we count Gopher Tortoise burrows on as many approved properties as possible on Marco Island. This will give us an estimate of the total population of tortoises on the island. Not only will this help with conservation, but it will also increase public education and provide vital data that may alter the management of this threatened species. Both tortoises and their burrows are protected under state law. Gopher Tortoises are keystone species that provide homes in their burrows for up to 350 other commensal species such as the Indigo snake, the Burrowing Owl, small rodents, insects, and a variety of other reptiles and amphibians. As development will continue, learning about how these tortoises are coexisting in an urban environment assists in the relationship between humans and tortoises. The findings will be presented and open to discussion amongst the entire public once the research is completed.
During one of our recent surveys, we had the pleasure of meeting Douglas Meester. He lives next to the vacant lot that we were conducting research on. For many years he has watched the tortoises move around his street and dig burrows all over the property next door. After talking about the tortoises, Doug asked me if he could have the results and showed interest in finding a way to protect them. This .25-acre lot had 52 potentially occupied burrows and seven abandoned burrows. We visually spotted 15 tortoises. The estimate number of tortoises per FWC is half the number of burrows-26 tortoises. Considering the number of hatchlings and juveniles spotted, there could be more than that number. The habitat is ideal, and the food sources are plentiful. After further discussion, Doug proposed the idea of buying the property and turning it into a tortoise sanctuary, essentially a conservation lot!
Less than two months later, Doug confirmed that he officially owned the property and wanted our assistance in ensuring the habitat was kept suitable for the tortoises’ needs. Doug will be adding native plants that are commonly a part of their diet which include grasses, flowers, cactus, etc. He also wanted to create a wildlife corridor between his yard and the vacant lot for the tortoises to be able to travel from the hill to his yard easily. I was almost in tears with happiness.
From the beginning of my career, my main goal was to influence people to respect wildlife, coexist, and do small things to ensure the world we are living in is kept healthy for all organisms including humans. This was the largest way I had ever seen an individual use my education as a driving influence to help wildlife. I will forever drive past this property and smile at every tortoise that does not need to be relocated away from its native environment.
That same week, I was contacted by Brian McLaren who lives on the same street as Doug. He actually created habitat on his property after development and attracted tortoises! This is a model for all homeowners on Marco. Brian was willing to let me test a starter burrow fit for a tortoise in his front yard. Most citizens of Marco Island are aware of the Burrowing Owl starter burrows. In the same manner, I hope we can create more habitat for the tortoises to thrive by providing the beginning of a pre-dug burrow on any lot that owners are willing to attract tortoises! Brian has looked out for the tortoises on the island for years. Both he and his wife Grace are now a huge help in spreading the word about our program.
I hope these stories inspire everyone to appreciate the fragile and beautiful ecosystems that exist on Marco Island. No matter how small or large, every small effort can truly make a difference. With 99 properties surveyed and 845 burrows counted, I am extremely looking forward to continuing this study and making connections with more citizens. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have Gopher Tortoises on your property!