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Two ways to celebrate Florida Gopher Tortoise Day this Sunday

Pamela Jones-Morton, PhD

While every dog has it's day, so it seems, does the slow-moving, Florida-native tortoise. April 10 was designated Florida Gopher Tortoise Day in 2016.

"It was established by the Florida Gopher Tortoise Council in 2016, so it's not very old," said Advanced Florida Master Naturalist Pamela Jones-Morton. "But they needed it to bring the plight of the Gopher tortoise to the attention of the public. It started out very slowly, but people are now understanding the tough times in some places that the gopher tortoises have with loss of habitat, so they're picking up on the celebration day."

The plight and tough times, according to Jones-Morton, is loss of habitat for the threatened reptile.

"Everybody loves Florida. That's why we're all here, but the Gopher tortoise has been here for around 60 million years. And right now, because of the loss of habitat through construction and development, we lose the land where the Gopher tortoises like to have their burrows," she said.

In order to bring more awareness to the public, Koreshan State Park is hosting a celebration of Florida Gopher Tortoise Day on Sunday, April 10. Activities include tours of the park which hosts up to 58 monitored burrows, plus a person-sized replica of a burrow.

"It's on top of Astroturf, and you can crawl in it and you can see what the Gopher tortoises would see in their burrow," said Jones-Morton, who is also a volunteer at Koreshan State Park. "They're what is called a keystone species. That means 350 different species depend on the gopher tortoise."

A representative from The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also will have a computer set up to provide a live look into a gopher tortoise burrow via a camera, allowing spectators the potential of viewing some of the other species that rely on the burrow.

"Hopefully, we'll have either a snake in there or a gopher tortoise in there. You'll be able to actually see him in the borough," said Jones-Morton.

A typical burrow is 10 feet below the surface and may extend up to 50 feet underground, which for wildlife can be a temporary safe haven (called commensal species) or critical habitat (obligate species.)

"For survival, you've got commensal and then you've got obligates. And the commensals are those that come in just to be there in case of fire or predators chasing them. Like a snake, an Indigo or a Black Racer or even a rattler would slide in there for protection. A bobcat could get in if the hole's big enough. Possums will go in there to get away from predators," Jones-Morton said. "Then we have the obligates. Those are the species that have to live in the burrow. They can't live anywhere else. We have the Gopher frog and the Gopher mouse, and they have to live with the Gopher tortoise. So it's a pretty amazing little creature."

Both the tortoise and its burrow are protected under state statute. The law states that Gopher tortoises must be relocated before any land clearing or development takes place, and property owners must obtain permits from the FWC before capturing and relocating tortoises.

Instead of relocating a tortoise, however, FWC offers another way to celebrate Gopher Tortoise Day by designating your yard as "tortoise friendly."

"With more than half of Florida land in private ownership," states a recent FWC press release, "the FWC recognizes the critical importance of private property owners in wildlife and habitat conservation." The FWC’s Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard Recognition Program honors Florida’s private landowners for their positive impact on Gopher tortoise conservation."

To applyfor recognition, landowners must sign an acknowledgement form and make sure their yards are "tortoise friendly" by complying with three measures: provide forage, protect the burrow, and control invasives.

FWC has a recommended plant guide to help offer food for the threatened reptile, as well as encouraging home owners to plant native forage.

To protect the burrow, FWC recommends flagging the burrow for awareness, keeping pets away, practicing safe lawn maintenance, and preventing the gopher from burrowing into unsafe areas of the yard.

And to prevent invasives from impacting the tortoise and its burrow, the FWC website recommends to "employ sustainable practices to help manage invasive plant and wildlife species. Invasives include species that (a) are nonnative to a specified geographic area, (b) were introduced by humans and (c) do or can cause environmental or economic harm or harm to humans. Try to limit the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides!"

Learn how to create a Gopher Tortoise Friendly Yard by visiting to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

Activities celebrating Florida Gopher Tortoise Day at Koreshan State Parkbegin at 9 a.m. and continue through 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Pam James
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