Seeking higher ground: Many of Marco’s burrowing creatures fared well through Ian

Andrea Stetson

A large gopher tortoise emerged from its burrow and blinked its small, dark eyes as it slowly ambled up a sandy slope. Nearby a burrowing owl with its huge round yellow eyes alertly turned its head back and forth surveying its surroundings.

When you think of Marco Island you might think of large luxury hotels on the beach, towering condos, grand estates and lots of concrete. You might not think of it as a place that burrowing creatures call home. Yet the island is home to a huge population of gopher tortoises and burrowing owls thanks to some historic and higher elevations, like Otter Mound, these creatures survived Hurricane Ian.

Brittany Piersma, a biologist with Audubon Western Everglades, is surveying the island and has already documented 2,616 gopher tortoise burrows. Since tortoises typically have two burrows, that leaves an estimated 1,308 gopher tortoises on the island, and the survey still isn’t finished, leading her to believe there are still many more undocumented.

In 2022 Piersma found 351 burrowing owl sites, 259 of those were active. There were 238 pairs of owls recorded, 190 nests and 524 fledged chicks.

“When I started, I knew there were a lot of tortoises and burrowing owls, but I had no idea that there were that many of them,” Piersma admitted.

That’s also why Audubon of the Western Everglades and some City Council members are pushing for Conservation Collier to buy more land to preserve for these creatures.

“If we don’t save these areas, in the next couple of years it will be all gone,” Piersma stressed.

“As Marco Island builds out and all these vacant lots fills out, we are worried we will lose the burrowing owl and tortoise population, so this is a race to save the population,” added Brad Cornell, policy director for Audubon of the Western Everglades.

Collier County commissioners recently approved nine sites on Marco Island as a top priority for conservation dollars. Conservation Collier bought its first parcel on Marco in 2004 when it purchased 2.45 acres known as Otter Mound. That property has 18 burrows and about nine tortoises.

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

ANDNCH Healthcare submits design for $200 million heart center

ALSONow You Know: ‘Ten Thousand Trees’ initiative kicks off on Marco

The Marco parcels also shot to the top of the list because many are not only environmentally significant, but also have historical value. One of the properties recently approved for purchase was a pre- Calusa burial ground and other sites have artifacts such as pottery and shell from the Calusa.

“We combine the historical aspect and the environmental aspect of this island,” Piersma said.

All nine parcels have tortoises and some also have the burrowing owls, making the environmentalists happy that it is high on the list.

 “It is thrilling it has gone this far,” said Nancy Richie, consultant with Island Environmental and Marine Services and a FWC registered gopher tortoise agent. “Now it is cross your fingers that it all works out.”

Conserving these lands was the main campaign promise of Councilman Rich  Blonna.

“From day one that has been something very important to me,” Blonna said.

The next step is to have the nine properties that made the A list, each get two appraisals to determine market value. No bargaining is allowed in the program. County commissioners then need to approve the appraised prices before an offer can be made to the property owners. Conservation Collier is a willing seller program.

“We are trying to get Conservation Collier to buy as many lots as we can to save as many as we can,” Cornell said. “Our campaign is to convince the City of Marco Island and its citizens that living with wildlife and habitat is really appropriate.”

“The A list is the most desirable,” Blonna added. “They are the ones we want to push forward. I want to show these commissioners that there is significance to these urban lots. We are considered an urban target protection area. That is the highest rank. They have significant conservation value. This is something I am passionate about and it really needed to be emphasized. It is something just near and dear to me.”

The nine parcels are all less than an acre and they are scattered throughout residential neighborhoods and commercial locations. But these pockets of undeveloped land are not the only places that are home to the burrowing creatures. House after house had tortoises or owls right on their front lawns. Some homeowners marked the burrows to keep landscapers and the public from disturbing the area.

They’re all over,” Richie emphasized. “Not just on vacant lots, but in people’s yards.”

Piersma said most people don’t realize these creatures are smack in the middle of Marco civilization.

“I was told by a professor that Marco was a lost cause, but with over a thousand tortoises it isn’t a lost cause,” she said. “And look how healthy and happy they are.”

On a recent afternoon, Piersma and Richie walked by a .63-acre lot with 144 tortoise burrows. They would like to save that property from development, but it isn’t for sale. Yet the environmentalists say property owners often don’t realize it costs $6,000 to relocate just one tortoise so to move the 72 tortoises from the 144 nests would cost $432,000. They hope more property owners realize the cost and offer to sell their land for conservation. Nearby another property owner is giving a .25-acre plot with 40 burrows and 20 gopher tortoises to Audubon of the Western Everglades. The tortoises, that emerged from their burrows to bask in the sun during a recent tour, will have a forever home there.

Cornell says these forever homes are more important than ever now. During Hurricane Ian most of the tortoises that lived along the coast perished. Delnor Wiggins State Park, Clam Pass and Barefoot Beach all went from about 100 tortoises to fewer than 10. Eight feet of water and about five feet of sand drowned of washed away the creatures. But those in the upland areas of Marco Island were on high ground and were fine.

MOREMarco Island bridge reopens after temporary repairs

ANDWhat’s the 'racquet' about? Pickleball could soon dominate city courts

ALSO‘Social media is just a cesspool’: Renourishment project targeted

“Only the smaller population of tortoises in the Hideaway Beach neighborhood were heavily impacted by Ian,” Cornell stated. “The remainder were not impacted due to higher coastal elevations. This tortoise population appears to have evolved with the pre-Calusa human communities that built these elevated habitats, which makes it very unique and long-established in this sustainable coastal area. These areas have natural protection during storms, which is in contrast to Delnor Wiggins and all the other areas that got inundated.”

Cornell said typically there are about two tortoises per acre, but on Marco a half-acre parcel can have 50 healthy tortoises.

“Apparently it has been that way for a long time,” Cornell said. “The expectation on Marco is the density is higher per acre. We are calling it our urban wildlife project and Marco Island is the perfect place to see how that pans out.”