© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The slow battle to save 'The beating heart of Florida': The gopher tortoise

A baby gopher tortoise
Randy Browning
A baby gopher tortoise

Slow and steady wins the race, but unhurried preservation measures could lead to the Florida gopher tortoises’ demise.

“They are these incredible ecosystem engineers,” said Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director and an attorney at the Center of Biological Diversity. “So many other species depend on them for everyday life and survival.”

Gopher tortoises are one of five North American tortoise species. They are the only tortoise naturally found east of the Mississippi River and can be found in all 67 Florida counties,according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

READ MORE: Loggerhead sea turtles nested in record numbers the summer after Hurricane Ian

They burrow tunnels that provide shelters for not only themselves but for an estimated 360 species, making them a keystone species.

The tortoises’ key role in the Florida ecosystem is what makes their population decline so concerning. According to the FWC, the gopher tortoise was listed as a “species of special concern” in Florida in 1979 and was reclassified as a “state-designated threatened species” in 2007.

In a 2021 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency projected that by the year 2100 (in 76 years), about 75% of the current gopher tortoise population could disappear. Despite these calculations, the federal agency denied Endangered Species Act protection to the Eastern population of gopher tortoises in the U.S.

Timeline of significant laws and regulation changes regarding the gopher tortoises.
Jessica Garcete
Timeline of significant laws and regulation changes regarding the gopher tortoises.

In response, the Center for Biological Diversity and Nokuse Education Inc., a conservation group in the Panhandle, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court in August 2023 to appeal their decision.

“Gopher tortoises will stay on a collision course with extinction until they get the strong Endangered Species Act protections that they’re entitled to,” said Bennett in the press release. “We’re bringing this case because gopher tortoises and the hundreds of other species that rely on them for survival are worthy of our care and concern.”

The organizations plan to file a brief this summer to the U.S. Court of Appeals. A federal judge will then review all the records that the agency has and determine whether it complied with the law when it made its decision.

The gopher tortoises’ biggest threat is habitat loss, especially from urbanization and development. They have already lost 97% of the longleaf pine savannas they historically occupied, according to the press release.

The FWC’s current Gopher Tortoise Management Plan revolves around relocating the tortoises. But it is unclear whether this strategy is what’s best for the tortoises.

We’re essentially creating more habitat for them and then just turning around and destroying it and moving them 100 miles away, said 35-year-old documentary filmmaker Brent Fannin. “There’s no research done on whether or not it’s okay for us to move that far, whether or not they’re actually healthy and live after that happens.”

Fannin began his filmmaking journey at the University of Florida where he received a grant of $25,000 from a nonprofit to make a documentary about the water conservation issues in Florida.

It was two years ago, when working at the front desk of the College of Journalism and Communications’ advising office, that he came across an article about the gopher tortoises and realized what his next documentary would be about.

“I’m not an angry person, but I tend to get vindictive when it comes to what I think is justice and I think it’s high time that someone told what’s really going on here with the turtles,” Fannin said. Gopher Games is set to be released in April and posted publicly on YouTube.

In his film, Fannin alleges that the economic interests are put ahead of environmental concerns in Florida.

“The ultimate decision-makers of the state are not biologists or conservationists, they’re appointees for the governor,” said attorney Bennett. “That definitely creates some hurdles for us in trying to advocate for the species.”
Copyright 2024 WUFT 89.1

More On This Topic