Five years after creating Florida's first Gopher Tortoise Management Plan, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) approved a revised plan intended to guide continued recovery of the gopher tortoise through 2022. The plan includes conservation of both the gopher tortoise and species inhabiting its burrows, including the indigo snake, Florida pine snake, gopher frog and Florida mouse.
"We must consider the whole gopher tortoise community. Gopher tortoise burrows are extensive, typically 6 feet deep and 15 feet long, and more than 350 other animals depend on them for food and shelter," said Deborah Burr, the FWC's gopher tortoise plan coordinator. "Florida plans to focus on conserving both the gopher tortoise and other wildlife living in its burrows."
The overall goal of the revised Gopher Tortoise Management Plan, available at MyFWC.com/GopherTortoise, is to restore and maintain secure, viable populations throughout Florida so the species no longer warrants listing.
Now a state-threatened species, the gopher tortoise is also a candidate for listing as a federally threatened species. The FWC will use the new plan to collaborate with numerous partners and work toward achieving a level of gopher tortoise conservation that would assist in precluding the need to list the species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The revised Gopher Tortoise Management Plan shifts the emphasis from the relocation guidelines and permitting implemented under the original 2007 plan to long-term, nonregulatory conservation actions and incentives.
The new plan underwent three drafts and was shaped by extensive input from a core group of diverse stakeholders, several public comment periods and meetings and outreach with stakeholders, the public and scientists. It builds upon achievements over the past five years, such as implementation of online permitting, relocation of 13,385 tortoises from development sites, and managing 92,500 acres of tortoise habitat.
The conservation objectives of the revised plan are:
- Minimize the loss of gopher tortoises;
- Increase and improve gopher tortoise habitat;
- Enhance and restore gopher tortoise populations;
- Maintain the gopher tortoise's function as a keystone species.
The FWC plans to work with private and public landowners and managers to get them the incentives they need to achieve gopher tortoise conservation, whether the issue is preserving habitat or relocating tortoises.
It is illegal to harm gopher tortoises or their burrows in Florida. The major threat to the gopher tortoise is the destruction, fragmentation and degradation of its habitat. Factors contributing to habitat loss include urbanization, suppression of fires and invasive plants.
To identify a gopher tortoise, look for its stumpy, elephantine hind feet and flattened, shovel-like forelimbs that are adapted for digging. The adult's oblong shell is generally tan, brown or gray. Gopher tortoises were identified more than 235 years ago by naturalist William Bartram as he explored Florida.