Washed away: Devastation for Southwest Florida’s coastal gopher tortoises

‘It was really difficult to go out there the first time and see the damage. It is something that it is hard to put into words,’ Phil Allman, Associate Professor of Vertebrate Zoology

Andrea Stetson
Close-up photo of the head of a Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) photographed at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park in Port Richey, Florida.  This species is threatened, and it is illegal in Florida to disturb them.

It’s devastation for Southwest Florida’s coastal gopher tortoises. Most of them that were living along the coast drowned or were washed away during Hurricane Ian, leaving populations so small they are probably not viable to recover.

Phil Allman, Associate Professor of Vertebrate Zoology, at Florida Gulf Coast University, has been studying these slow-moving reptiles weekly at Delnor Wiggins State Park since 2012.

“It is pretty devastating,” he said. “It was really difficult to go out there the first time and see the damage. It is something that it is hard to put into words what the devastation looked like. The storm had a pretty significant impact on all of the coastal populations. From north of Marco to Sanibel and Captiva, it seems that the coastal tortoises took a pretty big hit.”

The tortoise population at Delnor Wiggins was about 90-100 tortoises before then, now only 7-10 are left. At Clam Pass experts estimate there were about 90 tortoises and now there are 8-9. Visitors to Barefoot Beach Preserve commonly saw tortoises roaming the parking lots and living in the mound known as the tortoise condo before the storm. And while no one has done a recent count, the experts believe the numbers went from close to 100 to fewer than 10.

“It seems like the general pattern with all of these populations,” Allman explained. “Ian wiped out 80-90 percent of these populations. There seems to be no more than 10 remaining at these sites. We now have these isolated populations that are so small it seems to me that it is going to be incredibly difficult for these populations to recover.”

That’s a big concern for scientists. Before Hurricane Irma in 2018 there were 110-120 tortoises at Delnor Wiggins. After that storm there were about 70. But by early  2022 the numbers were back up to 100. That won’t happen this time. There are just not enough tortoises left to recover like they did during the last hurricane.

“My concern is the genetic diversity that is left of the population,” Allman explained.  “Certainly, with such a small population it is very unlikely that this population would recover on its own without inbreeding.”

Jeremy Sterk, owner, partner and principal environmental consultant for Earth Tech Environmental, has monitored tortoises in Clam Bay in North Naples since 2016 and is also concerned.

Emry Elrubaie and Hannah Vanderhei , both senior  biology majors at FGCU last year, took measurements of a gopher tortoise at Delnor-Wiggins State Park in 2021 while Phil Allman, Associate Professor of Vertebrate Zoology, recorded the data. Allman has been studying tortoises at the park for more than a decade.

“Maybe establishing it as a site when people find a tortoise on the road and they sometimes struggle with a place to put it, we could potentially be a place to put those tortoises,” he pondered.

But it’s not that simple. The future of these tortoises is up to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and they are now looking at ways to help.

“The FWC takes gopher tortoise conservation seriously,” said Carli Segelson, Public Information Director for the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation of FWC. “Should particular populations in Southwest Florida become depleted following a natural disaster, the FWC offers permits that may assist in augmenting the depleted population.”

Lisa Thompson, communications specialist with FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation, says the depleted coastal tortoise population could be helped under their Public Conservation Lands Restocking Recipient Site program. Under this program FWC coordinates with public landowners to help “where existing gopher tortoise populations have been severely depleted.”

“Restocking sites accept tortoises from development projects, however, require that tortoises are placed at lower densities for the tortoises to naturally expand into well-managed habitat,” Thompson said. “Restocking gopher tortoises to restore severely depleted populations is the preferred population management tool identified in the Gopher Tortoise Management Plan.”

Another solution being looked at is the “waif” tortoise program.

“The FWC coordinates with public and private landowners to establish recipient sites for releasable “waif” tortoises,” Thompson explained. “These waif recipient sites are permitted in natural areas to assist with population restoration efforts where gopher tortoise densities have been severely depleted. A “waif” gopher tortoise is a tortoise that has been removed from the wild but is not associated with a relocation permit and is generally from an unknown location.”

Staff with FWC’s Gopher Tortoise Program are now reaching out to the state parks that were affected by the storm to give them information on the zero-cost permit that is required for public lands to become an authorized site for waif gopher tortoises for population augmentation, and about permits needed for their Public Conservation Lands Restocking program. As sites are being studied and considered for these possible permits, local experts continue to examine and ponder their decimated tortoise population.

Even areas further inland was not immune to tortoise loss, though not as badly as coastal zones. Pam Jones Morton, a longtime volunteer and environmental expert at Koreshan State Historic Site, said the tortoises that lived closer to the Estero River didn’t survive.

“They were flooded, but the ones that were higher were safe, which is a good thing,” Morton Jones said.

She estimates that 46 percent at the park didn’t survive, but 54 percent did.

“They fared well considering the tragedy that happened,” Morton Jones said.

Allman does have one happy story. About two weeks after the storm, a tortoise was found on Bonita Beach Road about five miles from Delnor Wiggins. The tortoise was brought to the Naples Preserve where someone recognized the shell notches that Allman puts on the tortoises for identification.

“I went over there and it was one of our marked tortoises,” Allman said. “I took her back to Delnor Wiggins. “My guess is that tortoise got caught in the storm surge and that storm surge pushed it all the way up there. The one found was called Speedy because she was really fast. The students were really happy to see that Speedy made it. There were a lot of other tortoises that the students and I were attached to that didn’t make it through the storm.”

Speedy might also now be nicknamed Lucky.

“I suspect a lot of them go in the burrow, during the storm, but I suspect Speedy quickly crawled out of the burrow that was flooding and I expect that is what saved her life,” Allman said. “Besides the water, there was 4-5 feet of sand dumped over the island. Tortoises that stayed in their burrow, they would have been flooded with water and then several feet of sand piled on top of their burrow. The only way to survive was to hold their breath for as long as the water was there and then work their way to the top of the burrow and dig 4-5 feet of sand.”

The tortoises had survived many hurricanes and storms in the past, but of course this one was different.

“It just went so slow as it went across,” Allman stated. “We were feeling impacts for 24 to 36 hours. I just think it was too much for the animals to handle. We see natural events like this as one of the reasons why living things on islands have a higher risk for extinction. It can take a single event to wipe out an entire population.”

This is one of the tortoises that Phil Allman and his students used to study at Delnor-Wiggins State Park. The professor put notches on the tortoises shell so each one could be identified. Each time they were found the tortoise was weighed and measured and data was taken on its location. After a decade of studying these slow-moving creatures, Allman believes he had recorded at least 95 percent of the tortoises in the park. Now most of them are gone.

Allman is also perplexed by the other tortoises he has seen at the park. Before the storm almost every tortoise at Delnor Wiggins had a notch that he put on the shell for identification, but the few he has seen now, don’t have notches.

“We marked about 95 percent of the population, so I think some of them might be from someplace else that washed in from the storm surge because they are not marked,” he explained.

The surge definitely did move the tortoises around. Sterk said some were found in Port Royal, an area that does not normally have this species. The situation is saddening for both Allman, Sterk, other scientists and visitors that looked forward to seeing the reptiles creeping through the parks.

“It was quite depressing to see the damage to the habitat and recognizing and realizing that some of the areas where we used to see a lot of tortoises and see them routinely and see the same tortoises in that spot and then realizing we will never see that again,” Allman said. “A lot of them are dead. They did not survive the surge, and they just won’t be there anymore.”             

Allman and his students had been recording data about these tortoises every Friday since 2012. He still returns to the park now to provide information to workers cleaning up the area to make sure they don’t accidently harm the few remaining burrows. He looks forward to resuming his study when the park reopens.

“Now we are still in an emergency mode where we are more concerned about the survival of the population, than we are about collecting data,” Allman said. “It’s been really sad. All we can do is get optimistic and hope the remaining tortoises pull through.”

“I was estimating 90 percent of them were killed,” Sterk added. “We found one floating in Clam Bay, but we estimate that many were washed into the mangroves and those would never be found. I am guessing that every tortoise burrow was totally inundated for 8-10 hours and those that fled their burrow were washed away. It is so sad. We have been tracking this population for eight years. It was just a nicely thriving population. We had a ton of juveniles and babies so we knew they were reproducing. People don’t realize how bad it really was especially in our coastal zone. It’s devastating for us.”