Gopher Tortoise Day: Hundreds come to learn how to coexist with ancient burrowing reptiles

Lance Shearer

When it comes to gopher tortoises, homo sapiens is the invasive species. Gopher tortoises have made their homes on Marco Island for thousands of years, before rising sea levels turned this corner of the Florida peninsula into an island.

But since the advent of humans and especially the automobile, gopher tortoises have been killed on the island’s roads in depressingly large numbers. To bring awareness to the problem and seek solutions, two events took place last week on Marco Island. On Tuesday, the City of Marco Island hosted a roundtable discussion on methods for protecting tortoises, and on Saturday, Audubon of the Western Everglades (AWE) sponsored Gopher Tortoise Day at Mackle Park.

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Hundreds of people, including many families with small children, came to the “air-nasium” at the park to learn about gopher tortoises. Listed as a threatened species by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), gopher tortoises prefer habitat that is “high and dry,” which on Marco Island, translates to the estates in the southern part of the island. There, they have been getting run over by motor vehicles at an unsustainable rate, said biologist Nancy Richie.

“We have had 13 tortoises killed in less than 90 days on a 750-ft. stretch of road,” she said, specifically South Barfield Drive between Hawaii Blvd. and the Publix store. Richie spoke along with other tortoise advocates during the Saturday event, including Brad Cornell, policy director of AWE, Brittany Piersma, AWE field biologist, and Becky Speer of the Naples Preserve.

They shared ideas that were also presented during the Tuesday roundtable, including lowering the speed limit in turtle habitat areas, placing caution signs and speed limit signs with flashing lights, increased enforcement and fencing to keep the tortoises off roadways.

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Gopher tortoises are vegetarians, eating mostly what we would consider salad, but will consume carrion including dead tortoises, and even excrement from various sources, which the biologists surmise contributes to their gut flora and is therefore beneficial to their health. They are considered a keystone species, as their burrows provide refuge for hundreds of other species, and one tortoise may have several burrows.

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For property owners whose land includes gopher tortoises and their burrows, restrictions against molesting or harming the animals can become expensive. The cost to relocate them before clearing land or building can be over $6,000 per tortoise, and relocation is not even guaranteed to work for the tortoise, said Cornell. Landowners must obtain permits before relocating tortoises.

Marco Island City Councilor Rich Blonna, during the tortoise lecture, said he had attempted unsuccessfully to have the city acquire land where gopher tortoises live.

“I tried to put into the budget to acquire some properties. I will try again this year,” he said. “We need contiguous lots.”

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While the adults listened to more advanced areas of tortoise biology and policy, hundreds of children learned at their level about the species. They colored wildlife pictures, answered tortoise questions, got free toy tortoises, and listened to the tunes of Paddle Faster. One of the most popular exhibits was the collection of live tortoises brought by volunteer Brian McLaren. They were not gopher tortoises, as it is illegal to possess live – or dead – gopher tortoises, but related species from South America, Europe and Africa, including a yellow footed tortoise approximately 50 years of age.

The children didn’t mind, but watched fascinated as the tortoises munched on lettuce and lumbered around inside a couple of wading pools.

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“The big thing is to build enthusiasm and support,” said Becky Speer of the Naples Preserve. Events like the one on Saturday will help build a constituency of young people in favor of keeping Marco’s oldest residents alive, and in the meantime, if everyone on the island could do one thing to help, it would be to drive a little slower and keep your eyes open for tortoises on the road.